The Sometimes Daughter by Sherri Wood Emmons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was lucky to receive an advance copy of Sherri Wood Emmons' second novel from the author; we are acquaintances, as I wrote a couple articles for her when she edited the sadly defunct Disciples World.
I probably read this far too quickly for review purposes, but I couldn't put it down. I've had little patience for novels that aren't engrossing lately - no problem here. The book's central story is about the relationship between Judy (given name: Sweet Judy Blue Eyes) and her mother, Cassie, a deeply flawed character. But, like many of my favorite novels, the story is told parallel to recent history, with the fictional family's narrative woven into major cultural and current events.
The novel unfolds over many years, from Judy's earliest memories of her mother to her high school tribulations. At first I struggled with the narrator's voice; it felt simple to the point of simplistic, and I wanted elements of the story to be unpacked with more sophistication. That initial struggle dissolved when I realized that Judy's narrative perspective matures with her. Childhood memories that were observed and left unresolved were explored by an older Judy as she sorted through the chaos caused by her mother's instability. I ultimately liked the ever-changing narrative voice; it seemed like an organic way to tell a coming-of-age story such as this.
The book is worth reading if only for the extended character sketch of Judy's mother. At first glance it seems like she might just be a stereotypically irresponsible flower child of the 60s, but Emmons instead provides a complicated woman who means well yet fails her daughter (and herself, and seemingly anyone close to her) repeatedly.
I wouldn't exactly call it my "favorite" part, but the part of the story that deals with Cassie's involvement with Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple was utterly fascinating. Emmons worked on the issue of Disciples World Magazine that covered the Jonestown tragedy in depth (as did I - Emmons edited my cover article for the issue). Her knowledge about the historical events is matched only by her compassion for the people involved with it. I thought she handled what could have been a sensationalized storyline extremely well. In fact, part of me wanted the book to stay there, and just be about the aftermath of the horrific event from the perspective of a family affected by it. But Emmons' approach - to let the events be a significant and traumatizing but not defining moment in the narrator's life - was effective.
Another particularly well-done element of the novel, in addition to its strong sense of history, was its wonderful sense of place. I don't know Indianapolis all that well, but appreciated how grounded the narrative was in its landscape and customs.
Overall: good story, great characters (Judy's father is every bit as well-drawn as Cassie), compelling narration, complex relationships.
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