THE LOST SAINTS OF TENNESSEE
By Amy Franklin-Willis
Atlantic Monthly Press
Ezekiel is about as unhappy a man as can be. He hasn't adjusted well to his divorce, his hovering mother has lung cancer, the once promising young man has a dead-end job after dropping out of college and his dog is really old. Bad as all that is, Zeke's real problem is that his twin brother died 10 years ago. And no matter what his mother wants him to believe and no matter how much his sisters and ex-wife want him to talk, Zeke is having none of it.
Having reached his nadir, Zeke loads his dog and a Twain novel into his old pickup and heads toward Pigeon Forge to do in himself and Tucker the dog. He ends up at the refuge that is the home of his cousins in Virginia, the people who took him in years ago when he was a young college freshman and full of promise. They love him more than he does.
Amy Franklin-Willis has written a debut novel that celebrates poetry in prose, the beauty in hardscrabble, ordinary lives and the second, third and fourth chances we give those we love if we give in to that love. Interestingly enough, though, the characters who get second chances and those who are forgiven may not be the ones usually suspected. This makes for a bumpy ride. At times, the story reads like women's fiction and even veers toward romance when Zeke ends up in Virginia and his cousins' comely neighbor immediately catches his eye. But Zeke is no romantic hero. More than anything, having a history with another character is what dictates how Zeke and the other characters react to each other. How have they felt about each other underlies what they do now.
The author also inserts an interesting bridge in the novel when Zeke's mother takes over the narrative. She is alternately a monster, a misunderstood woman, a hard-working mother and, always, a human being fully capable of making tragic mistakes and fully aware of it. To gain a better understanding of her, Zeke will have to think like a parent when it comes to his own two daughters, to walk in his mother's shoes, before the reader learns what happened to his long-lost twin brother.
Although this is not a perfect novel, it does take great care to chronicle a plausible journey by a family and by a man who finds he is a grown-up. Zeke has to take his own place within the family and find he has come into his own whether he was ready for it or not. The writing itself is lovely. but there is not quite enough reason to see why Zeke arrives at where he does. Nor is there a sense that he has truly moved on from his brother's death, which has affected him even more than divorce from a woman he loves and separation from daughters who mean the world to him.
It is, however, a journey well worth chronicling and one that bodes well for the promise of a long career on the part of its author.
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