It’s sometimes hard for a young adult author, especially one as well known as Sara Shepard, to make the shift to successfully publishing novels for adult audiences. But THE VISIBLES, her first book to be marketed to adults, successfully bridges that gap. Fittingly, it’s about a young woman who is learning to negotiate the fine balance between being someone’s daughter and becoming one’s own person.
Shepard’s episodic novel opens with a harrowing vignette, one that becomes increasingly haunting as the story progresses and the reader learns new information. A young man, about to leave his small town in western Pennsylvania to attend the state university, accidentally kills the girl he secretly loves in a horrendous car crash.
Suddenly, it’s 1992, decades later, and that young man is now a father of two teenaged children. Summer Davis, his daughter, is in high school and has just discovered DNA in high school biology, a topic that will shape the way she views her entire life and her family’s whole history. Summer’s mother has just mysteriously disappeared, abandoning her family without a trace. Her father is distraught, her older brother buries himself in schoolwork, and Summer is left without a compass to guide her.
As the years pass, and Summer grows from an awkward teenager to a brilliant but vulnerable young woman, she continues to search for the elusive guidance to how her family ended up the way it did: why her mother disappeared, why her father has become devastated by clinical depression, why her brother develops wacky conspiracy theories, and why Summer herself continues to find more questions than answers. Again and again, her thoughts turn to genetics, almost despite herself: “On one hand, it was what I believed in, but on the other, it was exactly what I fought against.” Is Summer doomed by biological determinism to share in her family’s legacy of loss and despair? Or will she be able to escape destiny and craft a future for herself?
Shepard’s novel heartbreakingly captures the simultaneous pathos and angst of caring for a relative with mental illness, as Summer is asked to shoulder responsibilities far beyond her years, to make sacrifices she shouldn’t have to, to constantly revise her childhood image of her father. Shepard also distills the absurdity of painful situations into single, perfectly apt images: “There would be old biddies coming over to my grandmother’s house for an after-funeral party, if you could call it that, and there would be cabbage rolls, and various other things cooked in a Crock-Pot. Tomorrow morning we’d go back to Brooklyn and resume our normal lives of ignoring each other.”
What’s most surprising and affecting about THE VISIBLES is just how emotionally invested its audience becomes in Summer and her family. Throughout, the novel builds in intensity until readers will feel, like Summer herself, that their own lives are intimately entangled with the DNA of the Davis family.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 11, 2010