Between Before and After
This split-narrative novel, set in the 1920s New York and 1950s California, follows a mother and daughter as they each deal with various obstacles of growing up with a difficult family life. Elaine struggles to keep her younger brother housed and fed after their mother dies in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 and their father takes a downward spiral. Molly, with an absent father and a secretive mother, has trouble fitting in with her peers—especially after her uncle becomes a local celebrity for “miraculously” healing a sick child. Both Elaine and Molly are writers with aspirations, and the culmination of the story is about the ultimate connection of their relationship, with seeming significance on the age of fourteen.
The stories are slow to develop, with Elaine’s of more interest to historical readers, because the 1950s described seems overly modern—almost no different from society today. I checked the date on the chapter headings several times to confirm the era. While it does take overlong for the hook, there is a solid climax and satisfying ending. The world McQuerry describes of New York in the prelude to the Roaring Twenties is engrossing, and the young Elaine is an easily likable character. Molly is less so, possibly because the suburban setting is rather drab and it’s hard to disconnect her from her mother’s character—due to the similarities in age, family role, and personality.
There is an underlying Hansel and Gretel theme which comes to make sense later in the story. After reading the Author’s Note, I understand that this novel is based on family history and personal experiences, and as a result it holds more significance for some of its audience. It is a solid full-circle, coming-of-age tale if readers can stick with it long enough uncover its sparkle.