Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: The Good Daughters

A two-sided tale of girlhood that lurches clumsily into womanhood from the perspectives of oddly matched "birthday sisters." Two women born in a small town hospital on the same day, Dana and Ruth couldn't be more dissimilar.

Wrapped in the Plank family's farm life, Ruth's life is driven by the seasons, dependable, regular. Taller and thinner with a strong artistic bend, Ruth struggles to fit in with her four practical sisters and gain the approval of her often-dour mother, Connie. The sunspot in her life is father Edwin, whose love of plant life is only overshadowed by his love for his girls. Connie often chastises Ruth using Dana as a guidepost, hoping Ruth might better mirror her "birthday sister." Edwin quietly buffers Ruth against Connie's aversion with his stolid support, ambling about the property with Ruth in tow, spending time with her more than with his other daughters, encouraging her interest in art.

Stuck in a life as predictable as a hailstorm, Dana organizes her family's bills, pays their rent and covers other practicalities that her parents don't seem to recognize as important. While her father, George, follows his next big idea down disappearing trailheads, awaiting paydays that never come, Dana's mother Valerie paints in her studio to the point of ignoring the rest of her life, existing rather vacantly on the outskirts of motherhood. Left on their own, Dana and her older brother Ray, a sensitive soul who excels at everything he tries, dream of leaving home.

It's Connie Plank who names Ruth and Dana as "birthday sisters," insisting they maintain a close-knit relationship for that reason alone, despite divergent interests. The Planks' only vacation each year is a quick visit to the Dickerson home, wherever that might be, and in return the Dickersons visit the Plank family farm stand each summer, around the girls' July birthdays. Why do these two families, with nothing in common aside from their daughters' birthdays, keep in touch? Neither of the girls knows, and it's a bond they question throughout their lifetimes while a quiet drama brews beneath the surface.

It's on one of these farm visits that Edwin Plank takes an interest in Dana Dickerson as an unofficial understudy, sharing his farming know-how built up from six generations, which leads to Dana's burgeoning interest in farming herself, and, ultimately, connects her to Ruth in a way their shared birthday never did.

A tender, compelling read, Maynard has interwoven the girls' stories beautifully. Two heartfelt portrayals of the outsider that will be easily enjoyed — even by readers who aren't — and embraced by book clubs everywhere.

The Good Daughters
Joyce Maynard
William Morrow, Hardback, August 2010

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