I read this book for our April group read in the “Southern Lit Lovers ” Goodreads group. I’d heard good things about it already, and had read Jackson’s earlier book, THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING, and had liked how she intertwined a mystery with a story of family dynamics. She returns here with the same sort of story: a complex web of secrets old and new that get so complicated I had to look back and see who knew what when at times.
This was a book that grew on me. It’s written in chapters that rotate between the perspectives of the three members of the Slocumb family: Big, her daughter Liza and her daughter, Mosey. At times, the overlaps of time were confusing, but most often these overlaps paid off in delayed gratification of understanding, especially in terms of the set-ups in the prologue.
In the prologue and her early chapters, I felt distanced from and impatient with Big. Both Big and Liza gave birth at the age of 15, and Big blames their misfortunes on a curse that happens every fifteen years. In addition, Jackson loads the prologue up with people and information that come clearer as the book goes on, so I kept having to re-read to take everything in, which kept me at a distance.
As the story spooled out, and I got comfortable with each character’s voice, I got more and more sucked in. There’s a sense of doom from the beginning, but it’s tempered with hope (keeping Big in particular from turning into a whiny victim, thankfully). The relationships between the three women are prickly, but fiercely loving and loyal. We quickly learn that Liza has had a stroke that paralyzed her on one side and left her unable to speak. Mosey has transferred her teenage rejection from the helpless Liza to her grandmother Big, as she works through an enforced state of innocence to experience of the larger world.
Big is doing her best to make rehab happen for Liza with limited financial resources, and decides to cut down the huge willow in their yard so that they can put in a swimming pool (Jackson must have some sort of unconscious need to include pools in her stories!) because rehab in the water yielded promising results. But in the process, a horrible secret is revealed that sets each of the three women on separate path of difficult and even dangerous discovery.
At this point, the book delves inside Liza’s broken brain and I was sold. Liza has things she desperately needs to communicate, and her effort to swim up out of the morass of her stroke-injured mind is beautifully rendered and adds a fascinating layer to the mystery driven story. She describes her effort to re-find words:
Her head hurts, and it shouldn’t be this hard. She’s done this before…But the first time Liza learned to speak is too far down in the black waters, in a place too deep to ever go. (p87)
There are other quirky small-town characters: Mosey’s dorky best friend Roger, Big’s long-packed-away-love Lawrence, the powerful Richardson family and the very strange Duckins clan, “who were happy to live up to every cracker stereotype in the handbook and invent a few of their own, even worse.” (p. 156). I have to admit I absolutely loved the descriptions of Duckins’ farm animals hanging out in wheelless “rusting old sedans, all different colors…chock-full of jostling sheep.”
Jackson’s use of language is a strength. Although I occasionally felt that the Southernisms were a bit much, her descriptions of the bits of life had me marking the book all over:
…I was already so tired of the fight we were about to have. (p.3)
…he was still pale and gangly and about as seductive as a teenage Spock. (p.164)
I thought up a lie so fast I felt like the Grinch tricking Cindy Lou Who out of Christmas. (p.221)
I’d never had a friend I could play “Whose Family Is Weirder?” with and not win before. (p. 239)
…Roger was vibrating like that weird fork that Mr. Bell bings at assembly before the chorus dorks out a madrigal. (p.287 – also one of my favorite instances of teen-speak)
I am often interested in how an author chooses the title. The phrase “a grown-up kind of pretty” is repeated twice in this book. I loved the repetition, as the meaning is given a deeper (and unfortunately, more disturbing) level the second time around.
I did see some of the plot devices coming, but the revelations elicited more of an, “I knew it! That bastard!” than a “Well, duh” response. This story ends up revealing both the truly dark bits of human nature, as well as the depth and beauty of mother-daughter love. Reading it made me hug my girls a few extra times, for sure.
- Review: A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty (bookingmama.net)