I had read a couple of reviews for this book, but hadn't been compelled to read it until it was chosen for the May selection of my new Skype book club. Actually, if I were honest (and I am generally) I'd tell you that I thought it was the April selection, thereby nixing any opportunity for me to read the REAL choice for April, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Sorry guys. Sometimes you have to draw me a picture.
Synopsis: Amaryllis Slepy is the fourth daughter of a bohemian, self-absorbed mother (Seena) and a distant, pathologist father (Dick). Yllis has always been different than her three sisters, all named Mary (Mary Catherine, Mary Grace, Mary Tessa). She is dark skinned, dark-haired, and is an "emotional synesthete"...she senses people's emotions through taste and sight and smell. When Yllis is 11, she confronts her mother about her parentage, believing that she is the daughter of a local Indian. Fearing that his subconscious suspicions are true, Dick arranges for the family to move from Michigan to West Africa, where he will act as doctor to an aid organization.
Through narration from each of the family members, we are told of the problems that confront the Slepy family from the moment they step on African soil. Mary Grace is pregnant, and receives an offer of marriage from a local to prevent scandal. Mary Catherine is starving herself (for Jesus? from some trauma?). Mary Tessa catches dysentery. Seena and Dick drift farther apart and into their own worlds of self-preservation. The reader innately knows that all of this is building to a disastrous ending, that results in not only murder but discovery of what truly happened in Michigan that started the Slepy on this path to begin with.
My thoughts: I am finding it difficult to summarize my thoughts on this book. First of all, I had an incredibly difficult time in getting through it. Do I blame it on life's distractions? I think that would be too easy.
But first, let me back up and start with some positive words. The writing is simply gorgeous. I'd be challenged to find words more beautiful. Here is a snippet:
"Before Africa, I knew feeling: joy's humming, melancholy's shimmer, the flavor of love. Because I was joy's humming, melancholy's shimmer and the flavor of love. But did I feel these feelings? Or was I merely the bearer of others' joys, brought into the world like a sacrificial lamb, without a father's love?
In Africa, joy and melancholy and love weren't always where they belonged. When I couldn't get hold of these feelings - when I saw myself without feelings swirling, like I did that snake - I was no longer sure I had a soul."
Some of these passages just made me stop and think for awhile. This was a very philosophical novel, that laid out a myriad of questions not easily answered.
However, the plot failed to capture my imagination, and I felt like I was viewing all of that beauty from a distance. Perhaps there was more profound discussion about religion, personal responsibility, identity, and Greek mythology than character development. Perhaps the scope was just a big too broad and ambitious. Be that as it may, I had little connection with any of the characters. By far, the most interesting personality was Yllis, who was sensitive, precocious and wise beyond her years. But the rest of her family? I didn't like them - I found them narcissistic, distasteful and flat.
The narration also jumped from person to person, and went back and forth in time. I had no problem following it, but this technique tended to prevent any kind of flow or momentum to the story.
I knew from the synopsis that I would want to compare this novel to The Poisonwood Bible, and I tried hard to keep them separate. But TPB was a masterpiece, and I continuously wondered by any author would even dare come close to a plot with which it could never compete. Seems like asking for trouble.
Unfortunately, all of this adds up to a less than fulfilling experience for me. I'm well prepared to face a book club that may look at me like I have three heads! It won't be the first time!
3 out of 5 stars