Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Hand Me Down

Summary: A tough, tender, debut novel, in the tradition of Dorothy Allison and Janet Fitch, Hand Me Down is the unforgettable story of a girl who travels between California and Utah in search of her true family, having never been loved best of all. 

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Reid has spent her life protecting her sister, Jaime, from their parents' cruel mistakes. Their father, who'd rather work the system than a job, pours every dollar into his many vices, denying his daughters the shoes and clothing they need. Their mother, once a loving parent, is going through a post-post-adolescent rebellious streak and finds love with a dangerous ex-con. When she chooses starting a new family over raising her first-born girls, Elizabeth and Jaime are separated and forced to rely on the begrudging kindness of increasingly distant relatives. 

A string of broken promises that begins with Liz's mother swearing, "I would never hurt you, Liz. You're family," propels her between guest beds in two states searching for a safe home. All the while, Liz is burdened by her stake in a bleak pact with a deceitful adult: to tell the truth about the darkest of her circumstances will cost her the ability to shelter Jaime. As Liz spirals into the abyss of fear and shame that haunts her sleepless nights, can she break free from her bonds in time to fight for her life? 

Thorne writes with a command of language that is at once affecting and enticing. Her debut is the kind of voice-driven reading experience fiction lovers crave. -- Dutton

When I saw that the novel HAND ME DOWN by Melanie Thorne was being compared to books by Dorothy Allison and Janet Fitch, I was pretty much sold. I had read BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA and WHITE OLEANDER and had "enjoyed" both of them -- although "enjoy" might not be the right word given the subject matter. I figured if HAND ME DOWN was in the same vein as those two books, there would be a pretty good chance that I'd like this novel too.

And I did like Ms. Thorne's debut novel HAND ME DOWN, although I don't know that I'd say I "enjoyed" all of it. While I did appreciate this novel (I'll go more into that later), I found this book to be difficult to read. Maybe it's because I'm a mom and I wasn't when I read those other books, but I could barely handle reading about the way Elizabeth and her sister were treated in this novel by the adults in their lives. HAND ME DOWN continually broke my heart and I did find that I had to force myself to keep reading at times.

HAND ME DOWN tells the story of Elizabeth, a fourteen year old who wasn't dealt the best hand when it came to parents. Her father is an alcoholic that can't hold down a job and her mother has rediscovered her youth and fallen in love with a creepy ex-prisoner. When Liz's mother decides to put her new family ahead of her old one, Liz and her sister Jaime are separated and have to live with a variety of relatives -- some more caring than others. Of course, Liz is devastated by this betrayal, but she's also worried about her younger sister whom she has always tried to protect. As Liz tries to come to terms with her new life, she finds that it's difficult to separate herself fully from her past.

There is no doubt that HAND ME DOWN deals with some very serious and very sad topics; however, it is a worthwhile read despite the pain I experienced while reading it. I was surprised to learn that HAND ME DOWN is Ms. Thorne's first novel because I thought it was very well-written. I appreciated the author's storytelling abilities as well as her prose, but it was the character development of Liz that really stood out to me. I thought Ms. Thorne did a wonderful job of creating a realistic and likable teen, and it was her honest voice that really captured my heart.

Liz had an extremely tough time of things during her teen years. While her parents were both pretty messed up and basically absent in her life, it wasn't always that way. Liz's mother used to be very hands on and loving, and I think the change in her mother was even more damaging than if she had always been that way. In addition, Liz was forced to live with some distant relatives (some of whom really tried to help her) and she never really felt like she had a home. When she finally did manage to find some peace and happiness with her "cool" aunt, that part of her life was taken too. Basically, Liz had no stability during a time when she needed it the most. As a mom to a daughter just a few years younger than Liz, I felt sick for her.

I realize that I made it sound like HAND ME DOWN is a totally depressing book; however, there were some lighter scenes too. There is some humor woven into the story that helps to offset the darkness, and I thought Liz's insights into life were funny and sounded like a snarky teen. In addition, Liz is able to find some happiness and discover the goodness in herself at different parts of the novel. The reader is left with a hopeful feeling for Liz, and because she is such a strong girl, I have a feeling that things eventually work out for her.

Because HAND ME DOWN does deal with some pretty heavy topics, I think it would make an interesting book club pick. I also think this book might have some cross-over appeal to the young adult audience. I wasn't able to find a discussion guide, but if your reaction to the story is like mine, then you won't have an issue finding things to talk about. Some of the themes you might want to explore include alcoholism, abuse, parent/child relationships, trust, betrayal, forgiveness, redemption, and happiness.

Overall, I found HAND ME DOWN to be a strong debut from a talented writer. I can't wait to see what she has in store for her next book.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

1 comment:

Little Girl Lost said...

Hello Julie,
Hand Me Down sounds like a fascinating book, and you did a great review of it. Thank you :)

Found you through the Mystery and Crime Fiction festival ( I'm a fellow contributor)Really loved your blog and your style of writing. following you now!

Please do visit my book blog, and if you like it, please follow!