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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
It was an odd request—visit a stranger’s house and peer inside a closet—and as I drove through the neighborhood searching for the address, I felt my anxiety mounting.
There it was: number 247. I hadn’t expected the house to be so large. It stood apart from its neighbors on the gently winding road, flanked on either side by huge magnolia trees, tall oaks, and crape myrtle. It was painted a soft buttery yellow with white trim, and everything about it looked crisp and clean in the early morning sun. Every house I’d passed, although different in architecture, had the same stately yet inviting look. I didn’t know Raleigh well at all, but this had to be one of the most beautiful old neighborhoods in the city.
I parked close to the curb and headed up the walk. Potted plants lined either side of the broad steps that led up to the wraparound porch. I glanced at my watch. I had an hour before I needed to be back at the hotel. No rush, though my nerves were really acting up. There was so much I hoped would go well today, and so much of it was out of my control.
I rang the bell and heard it chime inside the house. I could see someone pass behind the sidelight and then the door opened. The woman—forty, maybe? At least ten years younger than me—smiled, although that didn’t mask her harried expression. I felt bad for bothering her this early. She wore white shorts, a pink striped T-shirt, and tennis shoes, and sported a glowing tan. She was the petite, toned, and well-put-together sort of woman that always made me feel sloppy, even though I knew I looked fine in my black pants and blue blouse.
“Brenna?” She ran her fingers through her short-short, spiky blond hair.
“Yes,” I said. “And you must be Jennifer.”
Jennifer peered behind me. “She’s not with you?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I thought she’d come, but at the last minute she said she just couldn’t.”
Jennifer nodded. “Today must be really hard for her.” She took a step back from the doorway. “Come on in,” she said. “My kids are done with school for the summer, but they have swim-team practice this morning, so we’re in luck. We have the house to ourselves. The kids are always too full of questions.”
“Thanks.” I walked past her into the foyer. I was glad no one else was home. I wished I had the house totally to myself, to be honest. I would have loved to explore it. But that wasn’t why I was here.
“Can I get you anything?” Jennifer asked. “Coffee?”
“No, I’m good, thanks.”
“Well, come on then. I’ll show you.”
She led me to the broad, winding staircase and we climbed it without speaking, my shoes on the shiny dark hardwood treads making the only sound.
“How long have you been in the house?” I asked when we reached the second story.
“Five years,” she said. “We redid everything. I mean, we painted every single room and every inch of molding. And every closet, too, except for that one.”
“Why didn’t you paint that one?” I asked as I followed her down a short hallway.
“The woman we bought the house from specifically told us not to. She said that the couple she’d bought the house from had also told her not to, but nobody seemed to understand why not. The woman we bought it from showed us the writing. My husband thought we should just paint over it—I think he was spooked by it—but I talked him out of it. It’s a closet. What would it hurt to leave it unpainted?” We’d reached the closed door at the end of the hall. “I had no idea what it meant until I spoke to you on the phone.” She pushed open the door. “It’s my daughter’s room now,” she said, “so excuse the mess.”
It wasn’t what I’d call messy at all. My twin daughters’ rooms had been far worse. “How old’s your daughter?” I asked.
“Ten. Thus the Justin Bieber obsession.” She swept her arm through the air to take in the lavender room and its nearly wall-to-wall posters.
“It only gets worse.” I smiled. “I barely survived my girls’ teen years.” I thought of my family—my husband and my daughters and their babies—up in Maryland and suddenly missed them. I hoped I’d be home by the weekend, when all of this would be over.
Jennifer opened the closet door. It was a small closet, the type you’d find in these older homes, and it was crammed with clothes on hangers and shoes helter-skelter on the floor. I felt a chill, as though a ghost had slipped past me into the room. I hugged my arms as Jennifer pulled a cord to turn on the light. She pressed the clothes to one side of the closet.
“There,” she said, pointing to the left wall at about the level of my knees. “Maybe we need a flashlight?” she asked. “Or I can just take a bunch of these clothes out. I should have done that before you got here.” She lifted an armload of the clothes and struggled to disengage the hangers before carrying them from the closet. Without the clothing, the closet filled with light and I squatted inside the tight space, pushing pink sneakers and a pair of sandals out of my way.
I ran my fingers over the words carved into the wall. Ancient paint snagged my fingertips where it had chipped away around the letters. “Ivy and Mary was here.” All at once, I felt overwhelmed by the fear they must have felt back then, and by their courage. When I stood up, I was brushing tears from my eyes.
Jennifer touched my arm. “You okay?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said. “I’m grateful to you for not covering that over. It makes it real to me.”
“If we ever move out of this house, we’ll tell the new owners to leave it alone, too. It’s a little bit of history, isn’t it?”
I nodded. I remembered my phone in my purse. “May I take a picture of it?”
“Of course!” Jennifer said, then added with a laugh, “Just don’t get my daughter’s messy closet in it.”
I pulled out my phone and knelt down near the writing on the wall. I snapped the picture and felt the presence of a ghost again, but this time it wrapped around me like an embrace.
Copyright © 2013 by Diane Chamberlain Books, Inc.
- ASIN : B00C74VCMM
- Publisher : St. Martin's Press (September 3, 2013)
- Publication date : September 3, 2013
- Language: : English
- File size : 3854 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 354 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #617 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The second set of my gold stars would go to the author, Diane Chamberlain, who has crafted this novel with great skill. She lays the foundation for what is to come in subtle ways from the very beginning. As a reader, you are discovering disturbing truths throughout the novel. In that way, it's a real page-turner. Another brilliant aspect of this novel is that the author creates characters who are flawed, as are we all, and yet they have good qualities. Most people aren't all bad or all good, and yet it requires a strong moral compass to discern the best course of action in each situation. This is a story of human failings by people who have good intentions. It is also the story about an incredible act of courage by a young social worker, who cares about her clients.
Ivy, though, has seizures and becomes pregnant, making her a candidate for sterility. But Jane finds Ivy the person rather than the case subject.
While the tale of Jane and Ivy forms the heart of a terrific story, the author skillfully brings in attitudes of the late fifties, early sixties about a woman's place in a polite southern society. Jane defies these expectations by valuing a career enjoying sex, and acting with courage and determination on her job and in her personal life. Super tale!
Jane is a young wife settling down in North Carolina with her doctor husband Robert. Robert makes more than enough money to support the couple, however Jane wants to work before settling down to have children. She becomes a caseworker in a rural impoverished area and quickly gets thrust into the world of trying to help the poorest people in the area.
Ivy Hart is 15 years old and is often the caretaker of her home; she lives with her older sister, Mary Ella, who is deemed feebleminded, her aging grandmother, and her two year old nephew. Her father has passed away and her mother has been put into a mental institution. The family lives in a tiny house on a tobacco plantation where they work for the Gardiner family who allow them to stay in exchange for working on the plantation. Ivy has a deep bond with her family and also has dreams to better her future.
When Jane and Ivy meet, they become friends. Ivy has been determined to be unintelligent and untrustworthy, but Jane can see through that and realizes that Ivy is a determined and hardworking young woman who has been born into an unfortunate situation. Jane works hard to advocate for Ivy and her family and to keep them together. But when multiple tragedies strike, Jane must take actions that she never would have thought of in order to protect Ivy. The two learn that they are more alike than different and have many things in common, despite their extreme differences in lifestyle and upbringing.
I loved all of the characters and could picture them so clearly. They all were so dynamic and relatable, despite the fact that I have never been in a situation like them and wasn't yet born when this story took place. The writing was incredibly well done and I felt as if I were there for so much of the story. This was a read for a book club and I suspect it will lead to a great discussion. There are so many dynamics involved that prove that life is never simply black and white.
I will admit that I had no idea that forced sterilization went on in the way that it did for so long in order to prevent poor people from having children. That devastated me and I truly learned something from this book. I felt for all of the characters involved in this difficult situation and I could even see how the other social workers involved truly believed they were helping these women. This story taught me something new and also captivated my interest. I was truly sad to see it end. I would highly recommend this book to anyone and I think it is an important read.
Top reviews from other countries
Once the plot really started to develop, my opinion completely changed. The characters were utterly compelling and I was fully invested in their happiness. From approximately halfway through the book I lost the ability to put it down...I just had to know what happened next!
Some of the issues raised in the story were unfamiliar and shocking to me. I was aware of eugenics as it related to the atrocities of Nazi Germany, but had no idea that these practices occurred elsewhere under the guise of social care. Alongside smaller, but also shocking to me, events like a woman needing her husband's permission to access contraception, Diane Chamberlain paints a horrifyingly real picture of the restrictions of womanhood and poverty combined that has left me with much food for thought long after the final page.
There were a few mysteries along the way, mostly relating to character's histories, and one in particular that could be considered a twist (which I won't ruin here!). I had already guessed part of that secret before it was revealed, but was kept guessing in other areas, which was refreshing for me as I am generally a competent plot-predictor.
Whilst the ending deviated somewhat from the strict realism of the rest of the novel, I am glad that Chamberlain opted for a *spoiler* happy ending for her characters. Without it the story would just have been too sad and bleak, but thankfully we are left with a satisfying, if convenient, conclusion which I fear did not materialise for the real life counterparts of our protagonists.
I recommend this book for fans of historical fiction and dilemma novels of the Jodi Picault kind. It is a harrowing, fascinating, entertaining read, that examines big moral questions but in a well-written, readable style.
Set primarily in the early 1960s, the two main charactrs (though there are lots of others) are a newly-married idealistic but naïve social worker, and a fifteen year old white girl who worked on a tobacco plantation. The connection between them is strong, but the social worker holds the young girl's life in her hands. I didn't know about the eugenics programme which forms the core of the plot line of this book, but there's lots of information about it in the author note at the end. It is shocking. Really, truly, horrific. And it really happened. The author makes the point that this case is toned down, deliberately 'ordinary' when she could have used much worse samples. I was so angry, and I was son upset reading this. And the fact that it was portrayed so believably made it harder to take.
Don't get me wrong though, this isn't a political book - well, not only. It's a really good story with really fascinating characters. Your heart goes out to them, but the lines are not so easily drawn either. There's rules broken that shouldn't have been. There's lots of unanswered ethical questions. And at the heart of it, a study of two really fascinating characters.
Well my tastes definitely haven't moved away too far as I'd forgotten how well Diane tells a story and this one quite shockingly is based on facts. I read the whole book over 2 days and enjoyed every page.
Diane's style of writing is very captivating and this book as reminded me of my love of her books. I shall definitely be working my way through any others that I have on kindle over the coming months. I did not realise how many of her books I've actually so unfortunately it's many.
The book alternates between being told from the points of view of Jane and Ivy. I was never confused as to who was 'speaking' as each has a very distinctive voice. I raced through the story - Diane Chamberlain has such a human way of writing, enabling me as a reader to feel empathy with the characters. Add to that her ability to write such interesting and morally complex storylines and this guarantees a fab read.
- Ivy and her thoughts about her world; I thought ivy's voice came across really well (and I loved that Henry Allen wasn't just a shallow teenage boy, but really cared about her)
- the other poor "trash" characters and the descriptions of their lives
- the historical aspects, highlighting the shocking activities and morals of the Eugenics Board and "social workers"; I had read about this before, but I had no idea it still went on as late as the 60s (though if you read the author's note at the end of the book, North Carolina was the last state to continue the programme)
- Jane's backstory, especially the loss of her sister and father, which was handled with a very light touch
- there was an interesting point towards the end where Jane and Robert start to realise that they haven't been completely honest with each other ... and that part of being honest with another person is the ability/willingness to be honest with yourself (which can be much harder!).
- I thought that if the author was trying to ask the question "are lies sometimes necessary?", then she didn't do it very well. I would have liked to have seen Jane (and the reader) put in a situation where she would have real doubts about whether she should always tell the truth
- the character of Robert, who was very one-dimensional and his empathy for his child patients didn't chime with his lack of empathy for Jane. This was a necessary plot device (Chamberlain needed him to go away leaving Jane alone in the house), and I felt it weakened the whole book
- in fact, now I think about it, I feel the whole thing was unnecessarily black and white - Jane was "good", Charlotte and Robert were "bad"; some shades of grey would have been refreshing
- the happy ending; this was like adding icing to the sticky toffee pudding - unnecessary and overly sweet.
Overall, I think the reason I enjoyed reading it so much is that it had "flow" - the story and characters carried me along. And that the criticisms I make (my desire for more "texture") would, if addressed, disrupt the "flow", which is very much a feature of the way authors like Diane Chamberlain write.