Sunday, August 24, 2014
Book Review: Peace by Piece
One of the oldest themes in literature is that of the wicked stepmother. Snow White and Cinderella come from fairy tales that originated centuries ago. The conflict between the budding, pretty young girl and the matron who fears growing old and ugly underscores many of these stories. In reality, though, females seem hard-wired to love and care for children to whom they did not give birth. Ask any teacher, any babysitter or pediatrician – any woman who routinely care for another woman’s children – falling in love with them is just part of the job. Even Hollywood is finally catching on, as Angelina Jolie’s Malificent proves.
Carol Fragale Brill’s novel, Peace by Piece, explores the consequences of that love. Maggie is a children’s librarian whose heart never recovered from breaking over Thomas in college. When eight-year-old Izzie walks into her library after school one day, Maggie quickly grows attached to the girl. Izzie’s mother deserted her, and her father Donald is a typical early-1980s-type father. The two form an intense bond, and Donald encourages them to spend time together. Soon, Donald decides he’d like Maggie for himself. Maggie finds him reserved and authoritarian, but her love for Izzie is overwhelming. Wanting to be Izzie’s mother more than anything else, Maggie marries him.
Peace by Piece explores the question of whether security is a strong-enough basis for a marriage. With a broken heart, an eating disorder and a distant relationship with her troubled parents, Maggie sees Donald as a port in the storm, and Izzie a lighthouse. But as the months and years go by, Donald’s reserve hardens into distance and his authoritarian behavior becomes dictatorial. It’s easy to see why his first wife left. But if Maggie leaves too, she’ll lose Izzie as well.
Maggie is a highly sympathetic character, and the reader roots for her to spread her wings even while Donald actively tries to clip them. She has a surprisingly warm relationship with her mother-in-law, Nan, which echoes the theme of women loving children they did not carry. All the characters in the book are wonderfully complex and multi-dimensional. The only aspect that occurred to me as missing was Izzie’s birth mother. As Donald showed his true colors, it became more plausible that he had forbade her from ever seeing Izzie again, rather than having the woman casually desert her child. I was expecting her to show up peeking around a corner at Izzie’s school, and for Maggie to have to decide what was best for Izzie. When that did not happen, I was disappointed.
What readers love about women’s fiction is its strong attention to the tiny emotional details that make up a life. It’s centered around relationships, and explores who women are in them and outside of them. Who am I if I am not a mother? Who am I if I am not this child’s mother? They may seem like small stories, but they are not to the people who live them, who write them, who read them. Peace by Piece is a fine addition to the genre, and Brill a strong writer from whom I hope to see more.
Thanks to Carol Fragale Brill for the book in exchange for an honest review.