Verdict: The novel features engaging, vividly drawn characters, with distinctive well-written voices, who take us back to the 1970s, a time of great change, especially for women and girls.
Adoptee Frances Orillo is being brought up to be a lady by her Irish-American mother and is well provided for by her hardworking Italian-American father. But she feels unloved and unwanted at home and out of place at school.
Her unruly Malone cousins are dragging themselves towards adulthood despite the passivity of their saintly mother and the abuse of their alcoholic father. When the Malones move in to the old Victorian house behind the Orillos, owned by Grandmother Malone (who also happens to be Frances’ great-aunt), Frances is thrilled to find a friend in Maddy (aka Mad Dog). Eleven-year-old Maddy is already an accomplished fighter and chain smoker. She and her older brother Tommy take Frances under their wing and protect her from the school bullies.
Frances Orillo is an engaging character, with a distinctive well-written voice, who takes us back to the 1970s, a time of great change, especially for women and girls. Her move from childhood to young adulthood, from innocence to the early awakening of knowledge, dominates the first and best part of the novel. Nor does she have to carry the story alone. The other characters are vividly drawn and play their parts well, from the hard-working dad who doesn’t understand why his wife wants to go out to work and the adoptive mother who still laments her own childlessness, to the child Maddy–old before her time–who tries to protect her siblings from their father’s terrible rages. They veer close to caricature at times—the good too good and the bad too bad—but the story carries the day.
Frances and Maddy leave the relative safety of elementary school for the mayhem of middle school and then go on to different high schools. Meanwhile, the dysfunction in the Malone household ratchets up a notch: just about every vicissitude of modern life is visited upon them.
Towards the end of the book, the narrative shifts from its close focus on Frances and first person point-of-view. The change is unsettling, although those sections are still well written, and, despite this shifting focus, the denouement with the instigator of much of the unhappiness chronicled in the book is left to our imagination.
Reviewed by Brid Nowlan for IndieReader