Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Book Review: The Precious Jules

By Jami Denison

What does it mean to do what’s best for your child? What does it mean to be a good mother? A believer in God? What happens when these values collide? In Maryland author Shawn Nocher’s latest novel, The Precious Jules, when a daughter in a large Catholic family turns out to have special needs, the impact of her family’s choices reverberates throughout the years. 

In 1969, when Hillary Jules was pregnant for the third time, her doctors missed that it was a twin pregnancy. So after Belle was born, Ella remained trapped in the womb for several precious minutes. As she got older, Hillary, with another child born after the twins, was overwhelmed by Ella’s needs. The baby who had seizures grew into a toddler who would attack her siblings. In the book’s opening scene, she nearly bites off an older brother’s face. When Ella is eight, the family made the decision to send her to an institution. And now, in 2009, that institution is closing. And even though Lynetta, the gentle African-American woman who has cared exclusively for Ella since she was 13, has applied for guardianship, Hillary has decided it’s time to move Ella back into the family’s sprawling Maryland home. For Ella’s “welcome home” dinner, her four siblings have arrived to talk their mother out of this terrible idea. 

This novel is an incredibly moving, thoughtful work that will appeal to fans of Jodi Picoult and Kelly Rimmer. Told from the third-person points of view of Hillary, all the children minus Ella, and Lynetta, readers will identify with every character—although I was often left wondering about the inner workings of Jules’ patriarch Stone. Oldest son Jax is burdened with keeping his mother’s secrets; the younger children are heavy with the weight of their parents’ expectations and the unspoken threat that children can be sent away. The timelines alternate, so readers are in the moment with Hillary and Lynetta as they make decisions that impact the rest of Ella’s life. 

1970s Hillary, with the expectation of perfect grooming, perfect children, a pregnancy a year and little-to-no help, is extraordinarily sympathetic. 2009 Hillary, who never asks what is in Ella’s best interest, is decidedly less so. And while Ella’s story isn’t unusual—many families were faced with this question when institutions began closing in the 1980s—her circumstances are. The enormous privilege of this family, who live in a sprawling home in an upper-class Maryland suburb, who have four well-off children, who have a caretaker eager to bring Ella into her own home, belies the fact that these real-life scenarios are often faced by families with very little resources, and state and federal programs that barely help. 

The best fiction immerses the reader in the problems of the characters, so much so that these problems feel like the readers’ own. But these days, it’s harder and harder to separate characters’ problems from what’s really going on in the world around us. Hillary Jules is a fictional creation, but many real women will become just as trapped as she was—and in a prison much worse than Hillary’s nice home. 

Thanks to Wunderkind PR for the book in exchange for an honest review.

Also by Shawn Nocher:

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