Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Bend in the Willow - an ordinary woman, an extraordinary amount of pain

Willowood, Kentucky 1965 - Robin Lee Carter sets a fire that kills her rapist, then disappears. She reinvents herself and is living a respectable life as Catherine Henry, married to a medical school dean in Tucson, Arizona. In 1985, when their 5-year-old son, Michael, is diagnosed with a chemotherapy-resistant leukemia, Catherine must return to Willowood, face her family and the 19-year-old son, a product of her rape, she gave up for adoption. She knows her return will lead to a murder charge, but Michael needs a bone marrow transplant. Will she find forgiveness, and is she willing to lose everything, including her life, to save her dying son?

My thoughts:
A Bend in the Willow is not for the squeamish or overly impressionable or prone to hypochondria. If you read the synopsis, it's full of provocation. It raises some very unsavory topics such as rape, domestic abuse, murder, care for a disabled relative, pediatric cancer and bioethics, all of which can be easily sensationalized. Those hot button topics cause an immediate emotional response from the female readership for which the book is presumably intended. There is the bread and butter of women's fiction and Lifetime movies. I do not say it with contempt. I do not look down on women's fiction, as long as it's done at a high artistic level, and its goal is not to perpetuate the feeling of being victimized while demonizing the male figures. I was curious to see how the author would handle those staple ingredients and weave them into a plot line.

Susan Clayton-Goldner does a pretty good job creating a convincing female character who has been kicked around by life a few times. Having spent her childhood in poverty, Catherine (aka Robin Lee) experiences Catherine/Robin is really an ordinary woman, whose ambitions do not extend far beyond having a happy nuclear family life. She has an underdeveloped ego that she eagerly pushes aside to accommodate the interests of other people. She selflessly carries a child of rape to term and gives him up for adoption. She puts her career in medical records aside to raise her son Michael with her new husband Ben. She takes on the role of a caregiver for her ailing father-in-law. And she is willing to sacrifice her freedom for a chance to save her youngest son after he's diagnosed with leukemia. For Catherine/Robin it's always other people before her. I realize that not every reader is going to like a character like that. If you are looking for an escapist fantasy featuring a larger than life warrior princess, this is probably not the novel for you. But the fact is, there are women with such value scales even in 2016. 

Speaking of time period, the novel spans 1950s through 1980s. Before the internet and social media, so it was easier for a person to disappear and reinvent herself under a different name. Also, being diagnosed with cancer in 1985 is a little different from being diagnosed today. The prognosis back then was a lot sketchier.

I knew this was going to be a hard read for me, because leukemia hits a little too close to home. The author does not shroud, downplay or sugar coat the horror of parents with a child who's diagnosed with a chemo-resistant form of blood cancer. If you have a vivid imagination, if you are prone to playing out the worst case scenarios, do not pick up this book. You will not sleep at night. I know I didn't. This is not a generic fluffy heart-warmer. It's a piece of very raw women's fiction at its finest.

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