The first thing to say about THE SECOND CHILD is that it is an incredibly brave book. In writing it, author Regina Toffolo has laid bare the often devastating events of her life and opened up her suffering for public consumption. While you would imagine this was a cathartic process for Toffolo, there’s little doubt it was also a very difficult one, and praise is due for the honesty with which she has told her story.
We begin with Toffolo – the ‘Second Child’ of the title, so known because she can’t possibly compare in her deeply flawed mother’s eyes to her perfect older sister – introducing us to her immediate and wider family, including that sister, Betsy, and adopted brother Tony, two figures who will play key roles in her life. We learn too of the deeply toxic relationship she has from an early age with her mother, of her father’s own tragic life, and the propensity for suicide that exists with the Toffolo clan. While her family were not wealthy, Toffolo makes it clear that they were certainly comfortable. Yet her childhood is seemingly one pockmarked by absence: the absence of love and affection from her mother, and of support from friends at her Catholic school. Yet it is a truly shocking and violent event as she stands on the precipice of adolescence that shatters everything and accelerates her decline into addiction and illness. Told chronologically, the story then takes us through Toffolo’s life: through a series of broken relationships, battles with bipolar disorder, and struggles to get to grips with her alcoholism. Through struggles to pay the bills, to mend broken bridges, and comprehend and embrace her own identity. Sobriety, when it comes, helps her to stabilize her life, and as she too becomes a parent to three boys, we see how she tries to break the cycle and give her sons a better life.
Toffolo’s writing is conversational throughout, and the overall impression is one of reading a retelling of a series of diary entries from throughout her life. The biggest frustration with THE SECOND CHILD is that certain events that seem key to the reader are very quickly dispensed with, while other seemingly more trivial events undergo more extensive analysis. Of course, it is down to Toffolo and nobody else to decide what the key events of her life are, but on occasion, it frustrates. Having invested in her, and rooted for her as we move through her life, it feels at times, even here in her own autobiography, like she is shutting us out. In part that is due to the book’s brevity. Coming it an under one hundred pages, it is a very quick read, and you can’t help but wish that Toffolo had poured more into the work. But again, that is perhaps not for us to request. After all, it’s Toffolo’s story and nobody else’s.
Certainly, though, it’s a book that feels like it would benefit from a good editor to tighten up the pacing and structure the narrative slightly more evenly. Despite this, THE SECOND CHILD is a rewarding read with some deep moral messages at its core. If there is a single catch-all lesson here it is that damages done in childhood can be heartbreakingly difficult to rectify and that there are no easy answers when it comes to doing so.
THE SECOND CHILD is a revealing and honest insight into how traumatic childhood experiences can have long-lasting and damaging repercussions that tear families apart, but it leaves certain aspects of the author’s story slightly underdeveloped.
~Joseph Sharratt for Indie Reader