Warning: spoilers down below.
Allison, twenty-one, is being released early from prison; she was convicted of killing an infant girl (presumably hers) when she was sixteen, and has served only half of the ten year sentence when she is paroled for good behavior and self-improvement while in jail. Her lawyer collects her and takes her to the halfway house where she will spend six months to prove to the law that she can settle back into normal live, and readjust to life outside prison.
Not so easy. This is a small town, where everyone knows everyone and despite the privacy measures…of course everyone knows who did what to whom1. The other women living in the halfway house torment her2 by leaving dolls where Allison is bound to find them. Her sister refuses to speak to her. Her parents have erased her lingering presence in their house by clearing out all her possessions and photographs of her, and redecorating her room; her father gives her money but is obviously uncomfortable in her presence, and her mother refuses to see her at all.
Olena, the woman running the halfway house, has arranged for Allison to interview with the owner of one of the local bookstores; the state has a program to pay the wages (within reason) of recently released convicts to encourage business owners to take a chance. Things seem to be working out well…when Claire’s adopted son appears. He is five years old, and looks exactly like the boy Allison had sex with.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Allison has given birth to not one girl, but boy-girl twins. Her sister, Brynn, was home at the time of the birth and removed the girl, believing it to be already dead; it is she who put the baby into the river….which revived it. She has borne the guilt for this since that time. Moments after Brynn returns home, Allison give birth to the other twin, whom they take to the father’s house. Christopher, himself still quite young, vanishes that night, leaving Charm and her stepfather, Gus, with Christopher’s child. Realizing that they cannot take care of the little boy—Gus has just been diagnosed with lung cancer—Charm leaves the baby off at the nearest fire station, newly legal under the aegis of the Safe Haven laws.
With the inevitability of a Greek soap opera, the four women converge, physically and psychologically. The denouement comes following Gus’s funeral: clearing out her ex-husband’s house following his death, Charm’s mother finds the photograph of her daughter with the infant and concludes that Charm is the mother, and storms to Claire’s bookstore, where Allison and Brynn are just kneeling down to play with Joshua. Charm and her mother have a catfight, during which time Claire realizes who Allison is…and Brynn snaps finally, attempting to finish her guilty deed by submerging Joshua in the bathtub upstairs.
The story is told from the perspectives of Allison, Brynn, Charm and Claire; two are in first person and two in third person, but all present tense with a few flashbacks. It’s interesting to get the different viewpoints, though the shifting between the women may be a distraction for some readers.
Unfortunately, it was too obviously agenda-driven to be a very good book. The fact that I spotted several typos (a “naval” piercing, Bob “Villa” of This Old House) isn’t all that unusual—all too often, presses skimp on the last, and obvious to me, step of having a human read through the manuscript to pick up that sort of thing. I’ll also gloss over the central plot point—that Allison gave birth to twins without anyone noticing she was pregnant. She’s tall, long-waisted and athletic, the sort of body type which minimizes pregnancy, true. I’m not convinced that an athlete in high school would be able to both conceal the pregnancy and continue with her sports, especially given that one of those sports was swimming. Did no one notice anything in the locker rooms?
That said, kudos to Gudenkauf for promoting the Safe Haven programs; for those who don’t know, these allow people (presumably the parents) to anonymously leave infants less than two weeks old in certain specific locations—fire or police stations, hospitals, social services agencies and so on—without risk of prosecution for child abandonment or endangering a child. I would have preferred the Chekhov’s Gun to be introduced earlier in the book—we don’t find out that Allison had twins until halfway through the book, long after Joshua (the surviving twin) has been introduced.
1well, everyone except the woman who adopted Allison’s surviving child
2why doesn’t the women running the house do more to stop them?