A Real Daughter
by Lynne McKelvey
Savant Books & Publications LLC

"He doesn’t get it, she thought, pausing beside the baby mastodon and its imploring trunk. Doesn’t get that Mandy is a child in mourning, a child in mourning for her mother."

Secrets have always played a major role in novels. From secret passageways in adventure tales to secret betrayals in spy yarns to secret familial revelations in Victorian comedies, tragedies, whodunits, and more. A secret is also at the center of this literate psychological drama that unspools in late 1970s Los Angeles. It is a secret that engulfs its keeper completely—a secret that results in unimaginable consequences when shared.

Claire is the novel’s protagonist. Like many in the City of Angels, she’s a transplant. A tragedy spurred her to move from the bucolic environs of Vermont to the sprawling metropolis on the other side of the country. There, she’s taken up landscape gardening as a profession and recently a relationship with Jake, a high school teacher. While both their physical and emotional attraction is strong, Claire finds it odd that they’ve been in and out of bed a number of times before Jake reveals that he has a young daughter, Mandy, who actually lives with him. It seems a perfect time for Claire to share her secret. She’s also been married before, and she too bore a daughter—a daughter who’s now deceased. But Claire doesn’t share her secret with Jake because her daughter Sarah still comes to her often... and is more real to her than anything else in her life.

Don’t assume a spoiler has just been revealed. The author actually introduces Sarah and Claire’s relationship early. While the reader knows of Sarah’s presence from the opening chapter, what’s not known is the extent and causation of Claire’s guilt regarding Sarah’s death. That information is revealed slowly, haltingly, and ever so carefully—thereby building both suspense and anticipation for what will happen once everything comes to light.

While McKelvey’s book is indeed a story that evolves from beginning to middle to end, it is perhaps first and foremost an examination of humanity. Covert emotions and overt behavior bind the reader to each character. Jake seems strong and self-assured yet somehow unable to untangle himself from his disdain for his former wife. Mandy is outwardly precocious yet inwardly starved for the love her real mother could never give her. The woman that elicits such feelings from both, Rita, never makes an actual appearance in the book, but the author has personified her in such intriguing ways that she comes across as one of the drama’s most interesting players—a narcissistic individual so self-possessed she’s virtually unable to show love and affection for anyone. Of course, first and foremost this is Claire’s story. In Claire, the author has created a woman who even after burying her child is incapable of separating herself from her one and only Sarah. Such is Claire’s plight that it brings to mind Voltaire’s profundity: “Flies are born to be eaten by spiders and man to be devoured by sorrow.”

McKelvey is a gifted writer who seldom hits a false note. She paces character development and plot exposition so that neither seems forced or labored. She builds suspense methodically without the need for superficial cliffhangers. Her dialogue actually sounds like real people talking to one another—whether being kind, holding back, or attacking. Her prose is deceptive. It initially feels languid and easily engaging, yet it harbors thorns that can pierce both the skin and the heart. While the author’s novel is in many ways a harrowing tale of personal disintegration, McKelvey has found a way to leave the reader not only with the impact of a gripping emotional experience but also with that necessity common to us all—a ray of hope.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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