Hardcover, 508 pages.
Read from May 16, 2017 to June 1, 2017.
I love getting book recommendations from friends, especially if the book is one of their favourites. Reading someone’s favourite book is a small way to get a better understanding of someone and a great way to read books that you may not have read otherwise. I mean, I had never even heard of this particular author until a friend started raving about this book, which apparently made some waves when it was first published back in 1996. This acclaimed story has won numerous awards including a nomination for the Giller prize. Oh yeah, and I guess Oprah liked it at some point. Meh.
“Lies like that are not a sin, they are a sacrifice.”
The story follows a few generations of the same family, and well, mostly their mistakes and secrets. The family has been far from picture-perfect in terms of what was expected from people in the late 1800s to early 1900s. The story begins with James Piper, a very ambitious man and piano tuner. He becomes infatuated with the 13-year old daughter of one of his clients and elopes with her to begin his own family. Materia is shunned by her Lebanese family and quickly becomes unbearably lonely in her sheltered marriage. James, realising that he literally married a child, becomes frustrated with Materia’s inabilities as a wife and quickly falls out of love with her. Their first child, Kathleen becomes Jame’s pride and joy and he forms an unnatural attachment to her. They have 3 more girls, Mercedes, Frances and Lily, only to have newborn Lily die a crib death shortly after. The novel explores the regret that Materia feels in marrying James and her inability to love her first child Kathleen. The book then follows the other girls and their relationship with their father.
As the girls grow, it becomes apparent that Kathleen has a gift for singing and is sent to New York to become an opera singer. Frances is a trouble-making tomboy while Mercedes is a proper, people-pleasing young lady. James enlists in WWI, while Materia secretly wishes for his death only to have James return unharmed. After a letter arrives from an “anonymous well-wisher” that Kathleen has found herself in a spot of trouble, James forces Kathleen to return home. Shortly after Kathleen becomes pregnant with twins. Kathleen, sadly perishes during childbirth and Frances’ good intentions result in the death of one of the twins. The story then continues to follow the growth of the Piper girls and their struggles with sin and guilt. With numerous plot twists and turns, this story is anything but straightforward.
The book covers a range of topics from isolation, racial tension, forbidden love, rape and incest. James’ character is by far the most despicable and while his guilt is not very overt in the novel, by the time you piece all the secrets together you realise just how deplorable he is. Frances has the most intriguing story, while Kathleen and Materia have the most tragic. You also see how dedicated the sisters are to each other in getting through the numerous turmoils that affect the family.
I feel like this book is worthy of a re-read. There were a tonne of details in this book that I feel I missed or that I would have benefited from at least discussing in a book club setting. The writing is intelligent and through with rounded and unforgettable characters. The Canadian setting is a unique one that is rarely written about in this fashion.
If you appreciate unforgettable characters in search of redemption then I would highly recommend reading this novel. Those that appreciate a good historical setting along with tense plot twists will also find enjoyment out of this book.