Monday, February 6, 2023

Book Review: The Shortest Years

By Jami Denison

“The days are long, but the years are short.” This pithy reminder to parents of young children--that although daily life can be tedious, those trying days will be over sooner than you think—seems like a title appropriate to literary fiction or poetry that looks at childhood through rose-colored glasses. Instead, The Shortest Years, Kelly Simmons’s eighth novel, is a dark picture of life after the worst happens… and a reminder that sometimes bad things happen to bad people, too.

Melinda runs a group for grieving parents at the local parish in the small Pennsylvania town where she grew up. One evening, she watches enviously as three young mothers bond over the deaths of their daughters. Taylor shocks the group when she makes an angry speech about being blamed for her child’s death; Jonna and Sarah leave with her. Soon, Melinda finds herself stalking the women between her hours at her part-time job at the tire store, watching as they set up tables in parks for their new charity for moms helping other moms. But when Melinda catches Taylor being cruel to a child, will anyone believe her? 

The Shortest Years is written from three points-of-view: Melinda and Sarah’s in the third person, and Jonna’s in first. Jonna is the character readers will identify with the most – a single mother, her ex had already started a new family by the time their pre-teen daughter Nena died. She works at Costco and lives with her mother. She struggles, but blames no one but herself for her problems. Sarah, on the other hand, is a wealthy wife who doesn’t work, and her story about the circumstances of her daughter’s death are genuinely horrifying. But Taylor is the most challenging character of the story, coming across like a Casey Anthony type. As her acting out becomes more and more dramatic, it seems quite possible that she was, in fact, responsible for her daughter’s death.

It’s difficult to make a grieving parent unlikeable, but Simmons has accomplished this. The dynamics and characterizations reminded me of the Showtime series Yellowjackets – off-putting women with complicated friendships put in horrific situations. Melinda strongly reminded me of the show’s Misty character. And both Sarah and Jonna took actions that indirectly contributed to their daughters’ deaths. 

It can be tough to get through a novel when most of the characters are troubling, but Simmons’s prose keeps readers engaged. However, the book is nothing like her previous novel, The Last House Party (reviewed here), and a few juicy set-ups do not pay off; justice is not served for any dead child. Still, I applaud the author for taking on an almost taboo subject and layering on unlikeable characters on top of it. The Shortest Years may not be every reader’s cup of tea, but there’s an audience out there for books like this, and it deserves to be reached. 

Thanks to Kelly Simmons for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Kelly Simmons:

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