The prologue to this engrossing debut coming-of-age novel forewarns: The Bible says the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons…But I believe it’s the daughters who bear the brunt of most family sins. At least that’s so in my family.” And so sets the scene for one family’s arduous history, as told through the eyes of the youngest daughter.
When Bethany and her family would leave Indianapolis behind to spend summers on Coal River in West Virginia, it meant one thing --- time with her favorite cousin, Reana Mae, a sweet, simple country girl, exactly one year her junior. As the youngest in a family of four headstrong girls, Bethany loved being older than someone, and Reana Mae looked up to her in every way. The two were inseparable: “Reana and I were connected in a way I’ve never been with anyone else. Her story and mine got so tangled up together, sometimes it felt like I was just watching from the outside, like she was the one living.” Long, lazy afternoons were spent on the river, swimming and hiking, watching fireworks at night. The two shared every thought, every feeling.
Bethany knew she was fortunate. Her parents were kind and responsible individuals, unlike Reana Mae’s. Jolene and Bobby Lee were young, wild and in love --- for a time. But shortly after Reana Mae was born, Jolene sensed a shift in her and Bobby Lee’s relationship. He spent more and more time out on the road with his long-haul trucking job, and she was left home to care for their child --- something she had little interest in. She enjoyed putting on thick eye shadow and donning micro-mini skirts. That, and drinking until all hours. This left very little time to care for Reana Mae, which usually was left to Reana Mae’s grandmother, Loreen. Bethany’s mother, Helen, could sense that the poor little girl was starved for love and attention, and when their family came down to Coal River for the summer, she made sure little Reana Mae got it. At that age, Bethany was too young to realize exactly how their families were different, but she just knew they were. She treasured all the time spent with her cousin, and the two wrote each other letters over the winter, each brimming with innocent longings of schoolgirl crushes and desires for a new dress. No matter how hard Reana Mae has it at home, she does her best to put on a brave face and be sweet to everyone.
But as her parents’ relationship continues to deteriorate and her mother’s drinking increases, things get slightly more strained for then-11-year-old Reana Mae when Bobby Lee brings home his 19-year-old brother, Caleb, to live with them. Bobby Lee has basically left home to live in town with his latest girlfriend. Since her mother has all but abandoned her responsibility as parent, Reana Mae spends most of her free time with Caleb, whom she regards as both an older brother and the parent she never had. Throughout the winters between their summer visits, Bethany begins to notice a change in her young cousin’s letters. No longer the sweet, innocent child, she now writes with a world-weariness belying her young years. When summer finally comes around again, there is a very palpable change in Reana Mae. And it has everything to do with Caleb. When Bethany learns the true and shocking nature of the relationship between Caleb and Reana Mae, she must, against her better judgment, keep it a secret. And so continues the family’s tragic history of passing secrets from one generation to the next.
PRAYERS AND LIES is about the complex relationship not only between two young cousins, but among sisters and mother and daughters, and how secrets that fester over time can destroy entire families. Sherri Wood Emmons does a masterful job of portraying a family, with all their love, caring and dysfunction, over many generations, and how a single lie can become the one crack in the foundation that can send everything tumbling down. A gripping and satisfying coming-of-age story that will appeal to fans of Anita Shreve, Jodi Picoult and Chris Bohjalian, this is a great choice for book clubs, as you will surely want to discuss it the moment you finish. You are left with a satisfying read and a profound anticipation for Emmons’s next book.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on March 28, 2011
Prayers and Lies