I’ve heard this author speak before, and the minute she opens her mouth, the whole room seems to light up and the audience finds itself charmed and entranced. Her books are the same way. You open the pages, and immediately fall in love with characters who are endearing, funny, sad, angry, hurt, yearning, and hopeful, but above all, absolutely real.
The narrator is Paula Vauss, originally named Kali Jai by her hippy mother Kai. Kai was in jail for drug use when Paula was born, so Kali was renamed Paula by her grandmother, and by the time Kai got out of jail, the name had stuck. Paula and her mother lived a peripatetic life, leaving her mom’s boyfriends and bad situations behind. Paula didn’t always want to leave, but with Kai, “boyfriend love is the light on a bug’s back end, flicking on and off across a lawn.” When the light went out, they had to leave. Paula rebelled, first by being as bad as she could be, and then proving she could be better than anyone expected. Now, at age 35, she is a lawyer with a top divorce firm in Atlanta.
Paula hasn’t seen her mother for fifteen years, but she sends her a check every month, feeling that she ruined her mother’s life and she owes her, although in the beginning we don’t know exactly why she thinks this. The checks have been cashed regularly, but suddenly, after all this time, Paula gets back a voided check, with a note from Kai that she won’t be needing money anymore; she has cancer and will be dead soon.
There are other changes in Paula’s life. She had been having an affair with her most talented private investigator, Zach Birdwine, but Zach broke it off. Paula admits she probably created that problem. She allows “I was the road . . . that was crawling with barbed wire and bears and dynamite, marked with huge signs that said THERE IS NOTHING FOR YOU HERE.” Paula still wants to use Birdwine’s PI services though; she has worked with him for almost nine years, and knows there is no one better. Birdwine has his own demons though, and every once in a while goes on an alcoholic bender.
In addition, a young man, Julian Bouchard, 23, who looks alarmingly like Paula, comes to see Paula and claims to be her half-brother. He wants help finding Kai, whom he never knew, having been adopted as an infant.
Paula asks Birdwine to help, and soon they find that there is someone else they need to take into account: yet another half-sibling – Hana May, aged ten. They all figure Kai might well be dead by now, but Paula wants to keep up the search to find Hana. Birdwine asks, if they can find her, what then? if you find her, what then after that? Paula thinks about it:
“I found that I could not imagine an after. How could I? Hana was suspended in the now, like Schrödinger’s cat. She was both alive and dead, safe and scared, hungry and well fed, sleeping easy and crying in the dark. … the need to find Hana had hit me like biology. It was that basic, and that unreasonable.”
But it’s more than that too. Paula has spent her whole life desperate for forgiveness:
“I’d wanted it so bad. I’d wanted Kai – or anyone, anyone who knew the worst in me – to say that I was still dear, and good, and worthy.”
Birdwine is looking for forgiveness as well for the same reasons. Getting that redemption from Paula would mean a lot to him because she isn’t like everyone else:
“. . . everyone on this shithole planet says a lot of pretty words to make themselves look good while they do awful things.” he said. “You’re the opposite.”
Maybe finding Hana will be redemption for them both. So Paula and Birdwine, with Julian’s help, work together to find Hana and to find the end of the stories that have driven them all.
Evaluation: I loved this book. Joshilyn Jackson has never yet disappointed me. She is an author who is so charming that her personality leaks into her books, no matter how varied they are. And that’s a good thing.
Published by William Morrow, 2016