This is the first Ida Linehan Young novel I’ve read, even though we work in a similar field — Newfoundland historical fiction — and I picked it up mainly because it’s a contender for this year’s NL Reads competition and I usually try to read all the NL Reads books.
This novel moves back and forth between past and present. The present-day story is that of Darlene and Tiffany, a middle-aged mother and her 19 year old daughter from Boston. Darlene’s own mother, who died of Covid-19 in 2020, had begun a search through online geneology/DNA websites for the family history that these three generations of strong, resilient women are lacking, and found ties to a family in Newfoundland about which they know nothing. When travel restrictions lift to allow them to visit Newfoundland in summer 2021, they trace those roots to a family reunion/birthday celebration for 101-year-old woman who may or may not be a relative.
The historical story, unfolded through chapters set in the late 19th/early 20th century as well as through journal entries that Daphne and Tiffany are given to read, tells the story of Mary Rourke and Peter Nolan, childhood sweethearts who rediscover each other and marry in a small outpoart in the late 1800s. Apparently Peter, Mary, and many of the characters in this historical story appear in the author’s last three novels, which made me feel at some points like I was trying to catch up on a story from which I’d missed important background details. The timeline of the historical story was also a bit confusing, as the dates on the chapter headings seemed to jump back and forth in ways that didn’t make sense narratively and made me want to check a paper copy of the book to be sure there wasn’t an error in the e-book I was reading. Some of the big plot points in the historical narrative did not feel fully resolved, but might have made more sense if I’d had the context of the previous three books and known more about the characters. Despite this, I enjoyed Peter and Mary — especially Mary, a pioneering woman doctor at a time when few women got the chance to be qualified in that profession — and their world.
However, I enjoyed the present-day story best, especially the way it was set agains the pandemic background. The idea of the family having a huge blowout for their matriarch’s 101st birthday in 2021 because they couldn’t have a party in 2020 rang very true (although I was a bit worried about their 300-person celebration — even in summer 2021, there were many limits here on gathering sizes, and I feel like the folks in the book may have exceeded them!). I liked Daphne’s uncertainty about whether she was really a part of this family, since the family ties are not explained/discovered until the very end, and her sense of doubting whether or not she “deserved” the open-arms welcome from her Newfoundland family felt very believable for this character and what we’ve learned about her background.
In closing I’ll just add that I came into this year’s NL Reads as a reader with a strong bias in favour of one of the selected books; I’ve now read 3/4 and have one to go so will reserve my recommendation for a winner until I have read all four! As always, this is a great program for raising awareness of local books and I encourage all NL readers to check out all the selected books.