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book review

The Excellent Lombards

By Jane Hamilton, Grand Central, 273 pages, $31.50

Remember how you felt about your family home, the one you grew up in? If you were lucky enough to have a haven like that, it's likely that nothing can compare to it in your memory. It probably looms large, all recollected images softened by the sepia of nostalgia – or sharpened by the sting of regret. Jane Hamilton's The Excellent Lombards is written in precisely the way it feels to remember such a place, as well as the past: There is tumult and disjointedness, but it's all on purpose, and it all works because of Hamilton's talent. Mary Frances Lombard – who is sometimes Frankie, and sometimes Marlene, and sometimes Francie, depending on where in her life you catch her – happily inhabits her family's apple orchard homestead as a child, without a thought to what might happen when changes come, as they always do. When the outside world comes to call in the form of family discord, urbanization and the plain inconvenience of having to grow up, Frankie is forced to put aside her proverbial childish things and face reality. This is a novel peopled with vivid characters: Mary Frances's father, Jim, is both knowable and unknowable (as only fathers can be); her mother, Dolly, is loving, harsh and misunderstood (as only mothers can be); and the rest of the family have their own interests at heart but are, in the end, still family (as only families can be). Hamilton gets it, all of it, about life and love and growing up when you just don't want to. She writes with compassion and warmth about how we see our family compared with how they really are, and who we can become when we finally cut the cord and fly free – like it or damn well not.

Miller's Valley

By Anna Quindlen, Random House, 272 pages, $37

What Anna Quindlen (Still Life With Bread Crumbs and One True Thing) achieves with Miller's Valley, and formidably, is telling an engrossing story, building intrigue and suspense, but all the while gently suggesting that every life contains a level of secrecy, that inside every soul is a mystery waiting to be unravelled. Mimi Miller is a young girl coming of age in Miller's Valley, a place at risk of ceasing to exist once the government gets its way with the flood plain the community is on. Young Mimi dedicates much of her young life to seeking an alternative to the flooding. But as she slowly comes to the realization that there is no alternative, she begins to learn about other things that are inevitable in life, too, such as heartache, loss, disappointment and the often fruitless quest for self-knowledge. Miller's Valley is the perfect backdrop for this kind of story and Quindlen knows exactly what she's doing with it. This is a story that will live on inside you, because it does live inside you: the idea of home, the ideas we carry around about our families and our pasts, the things we do as young people that only make sense from a distance – things that we are only sometimes lucky enough to emerge unscathed from. The truths Quindlen reveals leave you breathless after the fact, but you will not realize the heaviness, the import of what you're realizing while you're immersed in it because it feels so much like real life, like a story that could be anyone's life, could even be yours – and that's the beauty of it.

Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House

By Kathleen Grissom, Simon & Schuster, 370 pages, $32

Saskatchewan-born author Kathleen Grissom was inspired to begin writing her first novel, The Kitchen House, after relocating to an old plantation home in rural Virginia and beginning to sift through the history of her surroundings. The character Jamie Pyke, son of both slave and slave owner, was born during this research, and her debut novel became a New York Times bestseller and book-club favourite. She continues Jamie's story with Glory Over Everything, which is a stand-alone following some of the characters from the first novel. The story sees Jamie forced to revisit the parts of his past he would rather keep concealed. The secret of his heritage is one he would have been able to keep after successfully fleeing the tyranny and fear of the plantation he once lived on, except that Caroline, his high-born lover, has become pregnant – and there's no telling what side of Jamie's family the child will resemble. So he must come clean. But before he is able to do this, Jamie is visited by an old friend to whom he owes a considerable debt. Events spiral beyond his control until he has nothing left to lose. He then embarks on a quest to save Pan, the son of his friend and a former beloved employee. The danger both Jamie and Pan are in, and the brutalities and prejudices exposed by both their tales, serve as stark reminders of a part of history that is still simmering today. Grissom's writing is authentic, and it is also full of sensitivity, compassion and an encompassing sense of respect for the people whose story she is seeking to tell.

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