Alabaster Houses
by Lara McLaughlin
Wye Knot Books

"...the heart's capacity to be broken is infinite, because its most enduring characteristic is not its fragility, but its resilience."

Debut novelist Lara McLaughlin soars out of the gate with her tale of entanglement, grief, guilt and familial anguish. The story follows Jane Pepper, whose teenage daughter, Amy, dies unexpectedly while battling leukemia. A year later Jane remains shattered by the knowledge that Amy's death was not due to disease; she alone knows the true cause.

Meanwhile, she begins editing the memoir of Riva Hakim, an internationally known photographer who is dying of cancer. Riva's late husband, Per, was Amy's biological father. Riva learned of the affair and resulting child only days before Amy's death, as Jane desperately sought a bone marrow match from Per.

McLaughlin expertly juxtaposes the present day with Jane's personal flashbacks and Riva's memoir, which recounts her childhood and young adulthood marked by deep familial strife, with a Jewish mother and Muslim father who took widely divergent approaches to life and faith. Riva and Jane's shared link to Per and Jane's own marriage, that has imploded since Amy's death, lend weighty drama.

Ultimately, the unlikely friendship helps the women heal. McLaughlin skillfully weaves their lives into one shared puzzle; each has pain to unload, wisdom to offer and insights to gain. McLaughlin does a particularly excellent job of keeping Amy's cause of death close to her chest, not tipping her hand until the final pages. Only on a second reading do a few, well obscured hints pop out. A wrenching search for peace and absolution, by a talented new writer.

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