Marooned in a loveless marriage and on the cusp of a full-blown midlife crisis, Kay Sorensen hardly needs the additional grief of tending to a dying parent. Tribulations compound however: as she frets over her manipulative and fading mother, Ida, she must also reckon with her father's indifference, her husband's insufficiencies, and--she fears--her own squandered potential. Such is the treacherous and often bitterly comedic territory Molly Giles wanders in her first novel, Iron Shoes
, where the Northern California semi-serenity fails to allay one family's apparent disintegration.
As Kay puts in her part-time hours paging at the local library, she ponders her as-yet-undiscovered true calling and indulges fantasies of an affair. It's almost a relief to be distracted from her immobilizing frustrations by her mother's decline. Full of bitter and contentious self-pity, Ida trudges downward gracelessly. Her death provokes ever-worsening pangs of self-doubt in Kay, as she and her condemnatory father fumble to make sense of their relationship. Kay is pushed toward both revelation and decision: "If you can clean up the mess outside then maybe the mess inside will straighten out too," she opines. It's the "maybe" that muddles her tidy formula.
Iron Shoes is alternately sobering and breezy as Giles moves from the more unpleasant inevitabilities of Kay's world to the often absurd stratagems of family reconciliation. An ensemble cast enlivens things as well: Kay's sexy and audacious friend Zabeth counsels her and--just maybe--is coming on to her father, and her husband Neal is obsessed with a healthful diet but forgetful even of how many years he and Kay have been married. If at times the heroine's travails seem something of a caricature of fortysomething despair, Giles picks up the slack with a few well-placed narrative sleights of hand. Throughout, Kay's bafflement at other people's apparently well-manicured lives rings at perfect pitch. --Ben Guterson
From Publishers Weekly
Though they are monstrously selfish, Ida and Francis McLeod, the aging parents of the middle-aged protagonist of Giles's haunting first novel (after her short story collection, Rough Translations), are drawn with such nuanced understanding that one ends up as sorry for their shallow lives as for their daughter's crushed and battered psyche. The glamorous, alcoholic, self-indulgent Sorensens are too immature to be parents. They have cowed their daughter, Kay, once a promising pianist, into a frantically abject servant to their many whims and demands, to the detriment of both her own marriage and her abilities to nurture her young son. Over the years, Ida has suffered many "accidents" that have resulted in injuries and crisis surgery (her second leg has just been amputated), a perverse form of punishment of irresponsible Francis and of servitude for Kay. An assistant at a small local library in Northern California, Kay endures her mother's vicious asides and blatant manipulation, as well as her father's sarcastic wit. Unwittingly, Kay has married another cool, distant man; Victor, her husband, stays away from her in bed and refuses to engage in conversation. It's no wonder that she conceives a crush on a hunk, a painter whom she meets at the library. After her mother's medical condition goes downhill and her husband becomes even more remote, Kay smothers her feelings in alcohol, sweet foods and cigarettes, only dimly aware that she has willingly assumed the "iron shoes" she describes in a fairy tale she tells her son. Giles's psychological portrait of Kay is completely credible; it's easy to see Kay's lack of self-esteem as a reflexive response from her to chronic emotional abuse. None of this is as lugubrious as it sounds, because Giles's narrative is animated with zesty prose, whip-smart observations and a refreshing roster of minor characters. In spite of the dark terrain this novel navigates, it is a sparkling and witty account of one woman's belated coming-of-age. (Aug.)
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