I hate to admit it, but cover art plays a role in my reading decisions and this cover art nearly caused me to put this one back on the shelf. It’s gaudy. It’s busy. It should have warned me off. However, I don’t like that I’m so superficial, so I read the blurb and was caught by the “motherhood and sisterhood, being and becoming, loving and learning to let go.” Stretching my horizons would be a learning experience.
Nicole Cooley creates memorable characters with the immigrant Agatha and her twin, Agnes, left in Europe to waste away from sorrow. Her granddaughter, Lily, an aspiring ballet dancer whose one encounter with a male dancer leads to a pregnancy with twins, Madelaine and Alice. Lily is lost in her lost life, her chance to dance, and she passes along the family vinegar secret to her daughters, as Agatha had passed it along to her–to drink vinegar and induce vomiting to remain pure.
When we meet Alice she has recently lost her daughter, who died in the womb and remained there for weeks before delivery. She is wrecked and (re)turns to her damaged twin, Madelaine, in Sarasota, Florida. She lies to her therapist, cuts herself off from her husband, and only opens to a senior citizen in her art class, Helen, who is childless after a series of miscarriages.
Cooley takes us into the dark space of mourning: Agnes for her twin, Madelaine for her mother, Alice for her daughter and her lost childhood. Art, Catholicism, and what it means to be a mother, daughter, sister, and wife form a complex web of associations through which Alice wanders and from which there seems no escape.
This dark space of the novel is one problem,which is so believable that it sucks the reader in. The other problem is that the space is so dark Cooley is not entirely sure how to get out of it, either. The novel ends abruptly with a visit to the grave of the deceased daughter. There is no closure. Alice has a long road ahead of her, which is reality. The reader is left hanging in that same space. Not a happy ending or a quick beach read, but an interesting study of sorrow.