As the typical American family changes from a man married to a woman with two point three children to unique groupings of one or more adults of any gender and children acquired in a variety of ways, the women’s fiction genre has mirrored this evolution. By, for, and about women, this category prizes relationships above all else, and delivers strong, thoughtful female protagonists who place the people they love front and center. It’s also one of the most contemporary types of fiction, as writers deliver stories that address modern relationship quandaries. While author Diane Chamberlain’s latest offering, Pretending to Dance, takes place primarily in the mid-1990s, it deals with issues that feel very specific to what’s going on in today’s families.
After a tragic miscarriage that resulted in a hysterectomy, lawyer Molly Arnett and her husband, Aidan, are trying to adopt a baby. But the current custom of open adoption leaves Molly cold. She struggles to write the introductory letter to would-be adoptive mothers and can’t decide which pictures to include in a scrapbook. When Aidan asks about her reluctance, she lies. After all, Molly has been lying throughout her entire marriage. Because what would Aidan think if she knew her mother had killed her father? And that she grew up in a “family compound,” with her birth mother living next door to her adoptive mother, who was married to her biological dad?
Most of the book takes place the summer when Molly is 14. Her father is paralyzed with MS, and Molly helps him write his book on “pretend therapy.” Graham is a therapist who tells his patients to deal with their fears by pretending they don’t have them. Molly is a naïve, unquestioning teenager till she becomes fast friends with Stacy, who shoplifts, dates a 17-year-old boy, and smokes pot. Stacy encourages Molly to follow in her footsteps, all the while questioning the make-up of Molly’s family. Doesn’t Molly’s mother Nora think it’s weird that Graham is so close to Molly’s birth mother, Amalia? As this storyline develops, in the present Molly and Aidan have been contacted by a pregnant teenager who is considering them among other couples to raise her baby. But Aidan is afraid that Molly’s reticence might ruin their chances.
Pretending to Dance is a wonderfully character-driven book, with careful descriptions of Molly’s life and family members in the mountains of North Carolina. When the writer first dropped the “my mother killed my father” bombshell, I had expected a love triangle and a bloody murder. But when the book goes back to 1995 and introduces Molly’s sick father, it’s pretty obvious that his death will be tied to his disease. What results is a book that isn’t as plot-driven as a reader might expect from the back cover blurb, but an intimate character portrayal of a teenage girl just beginning to push her limits. Why is it so easy for Molly, a good girl raised by a strong, loving family, to break rules with Stacy? As both time lines are written in first person, the writer doesn’t really deliver an answer to this question, but it’s the most intriguing one of the book.
The writing is engrossing, strong and confident. What I admired most about it was that Chamberlain was able to communicate so much more about Molly’s world than what Molly was able to convey. Molly is unaware of the enormous emotional pain her father is in, but it’s clear to the reader. She’s oblivious to the danger Stacy puts her in – and later, her own 17-year-old boyfriend – but the tea leaves are there. The reader is able to observe Molly’s life while living it with her, which is a fully engaging experience.
Because of this duality, I was much more intrigued by Molly’s 14-year-old life than by her adult conflicts. That might be because of the point where Chamberlain decided to end the 1995 storyline. There were events she summed up, rather than showing, that were hugely important to the adult Molly became. It could be that this scene work would have led to a book twice as long, so it’s understandable that the writer decided not to include them. Still, it felt like something was missing in order to fully understand the adult Molly. The ending, as well, feels a little rushed and pat. However, these are minor quibbles that only slightly dampened my enjoyment of the book.
Molly’s world in the North Carolina mountains is absorbing, and the characters are unique and specific. Pretending to Dance will have strong appeal to women’s fiction readers. And lovers of 1990s boy bands should definitely add this book to their TBR piles.
Thanks to BookSparks for the book in exchange for an honest review. This is part of their 2015 Fall Reading Challenge.
Check out the prequel, The Dance Begins, for 99 cents on Kindle.
More by Diane Chamberlain: