Sunday, November 8, 2009

White Picket Fences by Susan Meissner

White Picket Fences cover

White Picket Fences
by Susan Meissner

Trade Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
First Released: 2009

Author Website

Source: Review copy from publisher.

Back Cover Description (heavily modified):
The Janviers appear to have the ideal life--a beautiful home, great jobs, two wonderful kids. But even if you live behind a white picket fence, you have to deal with the fallout of living in a broken world.

When her black sheep brother disappears, Amanda Janvier eagerly takes in her sixteen year-old niece Tally. The girl is practically an orphan: motherless, and living with a father who raises Tally wherever he lands--in a Buick, a pizza joint, a horse farm--and regularly takes off on wild schemes. Amanda envisions that she, her husband Neil, and their two teenagers can offer the girl stability and a shot at a “normal” life. But their own storybook lives are about to crumble.

Seventeen-year-old Chase Janvier hasn’t seen his cousin in years, but Tally and Chase bond as they interview two Holocaust survivors for a sociology project. Echoes from this past resonate in Chase and slowly bring back repressed memories from a house fire he survived as a child.

As her son begins to remember, Amanda wants to confront the truth no matter what it is. Her husband desperately wants to avoid delving into the one time he wasn't there to protect his son. And Chase suspects he was responsible for another child's death in that fire, but he has no one to talk to except Tally. Will the fire of the past tear the family apart or bring about a renewal in their lives?

White Picket Fences had realistic characters struggling in realistic ways with pain from their past. The author had a lovely way of showing nuances of the internal family relationships through their body language and actions. I came to care about all of the characters.

The author often described objects in an slightly anthropomorphic way (which I sometimes thought sounded a bit odd), but the vivid descriptions were clear and brought the world alive. The pacing was slower than normal, but I never lost interest in what was going on.

Though God was briefly mentioned in several scenes, he didn't play much of a role in the lives of anyone in the family. The novel was not preachy.

There was one "he cursed" but no other bad language. There was no sex. Overall, I'd recommend this book as well-written, clean reading with an astute portrayal of the complexity of human relationships.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
The chilled air inside the Tucson funeral chapel suppressed the punishing heat outside. Amanda shivered as she took a seat on the cool metal chair. She leaned over and whispered to her husband in the chair next to her. “A sweater in Arizona in September?”

He nodded casually, apparently unfazed by the abrupt temperature change from scorching to polar. Neil had worn a suit, though she told him she didn’t think he had to, and she envied his long sleeves. He quietly cleared his throat, opened the program he’d been handed when they walked in, and began to read the obituary of the woman whose casket sat several feet away–the woman neither of them had ever met.

A generous waft of newly refrigerated air spilled from the vent above her head, and Amanda instinctively turned to her niece on her other side. The teenager’s arms were bare under a flamingo-hued halter dress. Amanda wondered if the foster mother had given Tally any advice at all on what she might want to wear to her grandmother’s funeral. Amanda again turned to her husband.

“I think we should’ve come yesterday.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

Neil looked up from the program. “It wouldn’t have changed anything,” he replied gently. “Besides, we got here as quick as we could. It’s not your fault you didn’t know she was here. Your brother should’ve told you.”

Neil reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. Amanda looked down and noticed a thin line of wood stain under one of his fingernails, evidence that he had cleaned up from his latest woodworking project in a hurry. Neil turned back to the program, and Amanda looked over at her niece.

“You doing okay?” She hesitated, then placed an arm around Tally’s shoulders.

The girl flinched and glanced at Amanda’s arm before turning back to face the casket. The sixteen-year-old shrugged. “I didn’t really know my grandma.” The words were laced with casual regret, as if she knew people were supposed to know their grandparents, but what could she do about that now? Amanda intuitively pulled Tally closer. The girl stiffened at first and then relaxed, reminding Amanda that Tally barely knew her either.

Read the rest of chapter one.

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