SPOILER ALERT: This post contains transparent and honest discussion about this book that may contain spoilers and specific details. If you don’t want the story revealed before reading it, I would avoid the discussion portion.
Jenny Lucas swore she’d never go home again. But being told you’re dying has a way of changing things. Years after she left, she and her five-year-old daughter, Isabella, must return to her sleepy North Carolina town to face the ghosts she left behind. They welcome her in the form of her oxygen tank–toting grandmother, her stoic and distant father, and David, Isabella’s dad . . . who doesn’t yet know he has a daughter. As Jenny navigates the rough and unknown waters of her new reality, the unforgettable story that unfolds is a testament to the power of love and its ability to change everything—to heal old hurts, bring new beginnings . . . even overcome the impossible. A stunning debut about love and loss from a talented new voice.
What an incredible twist on “the prodigal returning” storyline! Over a week after finishing this book, my mind still wanders back to contemplate and wonder at the masterpiece that Gina Holmeshas woven with words and emotions. When I started reading this book I had braced myself for morbid and depressing rantings and regrets; instead, the undercurrent pulled me into a story that was profound, evocative, and, in spite of the circumstances, hopeful.
This is the type of story that you know how it is going to end, but you cannot fathom how you are going to get to the last page in one piece. The final words blurred together as I bathed my pillowcase in mascara streaked tears while a smile creased my lips. No, I was not having a bipolar moment; I was recalling the nurturing words from Psalm 30:11-12:
11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
12 To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to You forever. (Psalm 30:11-12, New King James Version)
That scripture and the two closing scenes of this story acted as a balm upon my aching heart and water to my thirsty soul. I was actually happy that I finished reading this book at night in the privacy of my room because I needed to be silent and dwell on the journey I had been on emotionally and spiritually through the pages of this book. And when I am rendered mute after reading a book, you know it has to be golden.
Holmes stripped her characters of all pretenses and facades so that their anger, bitterness, selfishness, and sorrow were raw and potent. Reading some of the character dialogue was like taking a sucker punch to the stomach because of the authenticity of emotions. But, because of the gritty, messy reunions, the restoration of broken relationships and offerings of forgiveness were so much more beautiful. This is an impacting story that I will carry with me for a long time. I am forever reminded that, because of Christ, we can declare:
Rating: 10/10 + a heap of tissues
Q: Despite her father’s desperation, Jenny makes the difficult decision not to seek treatment for her cancer. Do you think that was the right thing for her to do? What factored into her decision?
A: Quality vs quantity is the argument that comes to mind when I think of Jenny’s decision not to seek treatment. I think Jenny made the right decision in light of her diagnosis (and numerous confirmations) because she was aware that treatment would have bought her so little time and would incapacitate her more quickly. Even though she may have had more physical time, would would have have been as treasure by her family-particularly her daughter-to see her suffering prolonged. Jenny’s accelerated physical deterioration would have made it impossible for her to take the valuable time left to prepare her daughter for what was going to happen. Jenny’s witnessing of her mother’s suffering during her cancer treatments ensure that she would never ask her own daughter to endure the same feeling of helplessness or to carry similar lasting memories of their last earthly days together.
Q: After Jenny tells her father she is dying, she reflect, “If anyone had been watching us, they’d have seen the tears spilling over my cheeks as a natural reflection to my father’s grief. There were tears of pain, yes, but as horrible as it may sound, there were tears of joy too. For the first time in my life I knew, really new, that my father loved me.” Why is Jenny unconvinced, before this, of her father’s love?
A: There were so many instances while reading this book that I wanted to shake Jenny’s father and scream at him that his selfish and immature behavior was not helping anyone. Suffering the loss of a loved one is a tragic and heart-wrenching time, but how are we honoring their legacy or looking forward to our heavenly reunion if we let our spirits die along with them? For everything there is a season, and unfortunately Jenny’s father was perpetually caught in the season of mourning with no desire to move on. His sorrow manifested in alienation of everyone else in his life and his bitterness tainted every loving relationship in his life. Instead of celebrating his wife’s love he chose only to remember her sickness and physical death.
Q: At one point, Jenny makes a snide remark to her father and then wonder, “Why was I waving a red cape before this bull instead of the white flag I’d intended?” Why is it so hard to break longstanding relational habits, even when we realize they are hurting us or someone we love? Have you faced a similar situation with a family member or close friend? How did you handle it, or how do you wish you had handled it?
A: I am blessed with a truly amazingly loving, encouraging, supportive immediate family. My relationship with my extended family has hurt me deeply over the past few years and I have longed for a similar relationship with them. It took a long time for me to resolve the anger and resentment I felt (and, honestly, sometimes still struggle with), but the Lord is teaching me that forgiveness is so freeing. For years my defense mechanism was erecting a wall around me with the mantra “smile and bear it” and tried to be a peace maker by pretending that nothing was out of sorts; but, you can only push your emotions down so far before there is no more room in your churning stomach. That is when the beast of passive aggressive comments rears its ugly head. The adage “old habits die hard” is true and sometimes when I interact with these family members, I have to pray beforehand for strength not to add further strain to an already fractured truce. I hate confrontation so my tactic is avoidance (which isn’t very healthy), but it is my current strategy for not stepping into the same relational habits that have been so hurtful.
Q: Was Jenny right to keep Isabella’s existence a secret from David? How might things have been different if David had known about Isabelle from the beginning?
A: I wanted to sympathize with Jenny for keeping Isabella a secret from David, but I realized that I was willing to do so only because she was dying. When I removed Jenny’s impending death from the equation I realized that, no matter what her rationale was, it was flawed. It is not fair to make a life changing decision for someone without their knowledge and, consequently, no parent should have the existence of their child kept from them (abusive or dangerous situations aside). The right thing to do what have been to tell David and let him decide for himself whether or not he wanted to be a part of Isabella’s life.
David may or may not have offered to marry Jenny, but I don’t think it would have changed the type of father he became. It is apparent that David’s concerns were about possessing, not cherishing. I don’t doubt that he loved Isabella in his own way, but I also don’t think that five years would have changed his personality. Maybe if David had known from the beginning, he would have had a deeper relationship with his daughter. Then again, maybe his influence over her would have molded her to be more like him (nature vs nurture argument). This is one case where hindsight is not 20/20 in my eyes.
Q: Describe the way Jenny’s feelings for David change throughout the story. Do you think she was ever really in love with him?
I may get Freudian on you for a moment, so bear with me. I think Jenny’s relationship with David was acting as a replacement for the affection and attention she craved from father after her mother died. Now I’m not taking about intimate or sexual attention AT ALL, so please understand me clearly. In my opinion, David was an emotional stand as a comforter in a mournful and tumultuous time in Jenny’s life.
Later on, I think Jenny’s jealous urges were a result of her being confronted with the fact that she would not have the opportunity for a husband-wife-child family dynamic. She was getting caught-up in the “what could have been” instead of “what should have been.” When Jenny realizes what true loves should and does look like in her relationship with Craig, it is only then that she can admit that her relationship with David could never compare or satisfy. She would never be David’s equal or partner, and he never would have valued her the way she deserved.
Next month’s Christian Fiction Book Club is getting a new twist and will be hosted by the amazing Renee Ann at the Doorkeeper.