Forty-five-year-old Ginny Slocumb and her 30-year-old daughter, Liza, remember exactly what it was like to be unwed and pregnant by the age of 15. They’ve both paid the price for hiding dirty secrets no teenager should have to keep, including date rape, pedophilia, and drug addiction.
Their memories of those years, which come to light during the course of A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty (Grand Central Publishing), would leave you brokenhearted if you could stop laughing long enough. But in a Joshilyn Jackson book, that will never happen.
If you’re new to Jackson, you’ll discover her knack for hitching misfortune to wicked humor within the first few pages, where Ginny, recalling her miserable failure at disciplining Liza, describes how proud she was to have survived her “screamfest of a childhood without once throwing her off a train trestle or eating her like a hamster mama would have.”
Sadly, it wasn’t enough mothering to protect Liza, who followed in Ginny’s footsteps and had a baby when she was 15, then disappeared in the middle of the night, taking her newborn with her. Two years later, with a raging meth habit and Mosey in tow, Liza begged Ginny to take them in.
Now, the three Slocumb women live together, determined to break the cycle as another “trouble year” looms, pulling out every stop they know to prevent teenage Mosey from repeating their mistakes.
As the book opens, it looks as if their plan is succeeding: Over-supervised Mosey, who’s heard all the warnings about sex in graphic detail, is afraid to even kiss a boy. During her birthday party, as Liza lectures once again about the dangers of letting a boy get to first base, Mosey longs for a t-shirt that reads, “Oh, my God, I am not having sex!”
For her part, Ginny has permanently set aside her adult needs in favor of motherhood, back-burnering a steamy and promising affair with a local cop in order to keep her growing granddaughter and the still-promiscuous Liza under close watch.
But when Liza suffers an unexpected, crippling stroke, and a silver hope chest containing the skeleton of an infant girl turns up buried in the Slocumb’s back yard, the safe haven that Ginny and Liza have built for themselves and Mosey threatens to collapse.
The good news is that Mosey probably won’t turn out like her mom and grandmother. The bad news—well, it’s impossible to tell much more of the plot to A Grown-up Kind of Pretty and not give away the hundreds of moving parts in the machinery of Jackson’s intricate mystery, all deliciously unravelled one tantalizing clue at a time. As the Slocumb women take turns narrating, other long buried boxes and bodies resurface.
Ginny, whose main concern is to prevent local authorities from getting to the bottom of things, must also deal with the reappearance of her state-trooper boyfriend and the sexuality she long ago “packed in a box and put … deep away, then wedged a thousand other boxes on top of it to wedge the lid on,” in order to be the “mommishy mom” she knew Liza and Mosey needed.
Former wild child Liza stumbles along, struggling to relearn simple words that will unlock part of the mystery, her memories leak into the present in a fractured, crazy-quilt dream, mirroring her halting consciousness as she comes to grips with the forgotten past that fuels her unhappy present.
Mosey’s story chronicles the suspenseful hunt for her biological mother aided by computer-whiz sidekick Roger. Hers is the most beguiling voice of the three, a no-nonsense girl who can easily spot and avoid the pitfalls her mother and grandmother could not—but her protective shield has cost her. She’ll melt your heart recalling her solitary, sixth-grade kiss, and the pregnancy tests she takes in secret to see “that pure white window” that means she hasn’t turned out like her mother.
Atlanta author Jackson sprinkles fairytail imagery—the bones of children, tree houses, changelings, the half-eaten apple on the book’s cover, the 15th-year curse suggestive of a bad fairy’s christening gift—throughout her novel, suggesting that the wildness and sexuality of the novel’s “bad girls” is not entirely of this world, that they’ll have to suppress it to survive. But she points up the danger, too, of leaning too far in the other direction.
Before her stroke, Liza questions Ginny’s strict brand of parenting. “Do you ever get a day off,” she asks her mother, “from this constant mommism? Do you ever get to be human?”
“No, and you don’t get to either,” Ginny tells her. “Not anymore.” But no curse lasts forever.
Jackson’s triumph is in returning her characters to their broken places and reknitting the breaks in believable ways. As Liza reconnects the damaged threads of her past and learns to speak once more, as Ginny builds a new relationship and Mosey finds out where she truly belongs, the women of this once-ill-fated family break the spell and all grow up, each according to their needs.
Jackson is the author of four other novels: Gods in Alabama, Between, Georgia, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and Backseat Saints.