A masterful first novel challenges readers.
Regional author Laura McHugh’s debut, “The Weight of Blood,” has received much acclaim since publication last March, and FYI Book Club readers praised it as a “brilliant first novel.”
And a challenging one: McHugh, who lives in Columbia, moors her story in the voices of two strong characters, a mother and daughter who never knew each other.
Lucy’s mother, Lila, vanished when Lucy was still an infant; years later, as Lucy probes the disappearance of one of her classmates, she learns there may be ties to her own mother’s disappearance.
“McHugh gives us the epiphany in the first chapter,” said reader Catherine Morris of Kansas City at the recent meeting of the club, “and now the reader must go along to discover what it is.”
Participants were eager to discuss the dual narration from Lila and Lucy, the author’s interesting choice to start the story with Lila’s contemporary voice and then move backward to Lucy’s.
Carla Norcott-Mahany of Kansas City said she liked having both women’s viewpoints written in the present tense.
“It seemed as if their experiences were happening concurrently, even though we knew they were years apart,” she said. “This technique keeps the suspense high as we watch both women’s stories play out.”
Morris didn’t quite agree.
“This may have been the author’s intent, but it didn’t quite work for me,” Morris said. “McHugh could have solved this time shift by including dates along with the chapter headings.”
Laura Patton of Overland Park felt the dual voices were “a good anchor for keeping track of the shifting of the time periods. What I did find confusing at first was when certain characters appeared in both Lucy and Lila’s lives.”
“There were people from the same family, sometimes the same people, but at different points in their own lives,” Patton said.
“It was like solving a jigsaw puzzle to see how all the community members fit together and what was their significance in each young woman’s life.”
Readers enjoyed delving into the complexity of the supporting characters, particularly the two primary male characters, brothers Crete and Carl.
Kathie Newell of Kansas City, Kan., asked participants if they felt Carl was a strong or weak character.
“He succumbs to so many of his brother Crete’s demands, too many in fact,” Newell said. “Carl needed to rebel in some way to show Crete he couldn’t exert this much control over Carl’s life forever.”
Kristen Zane of Overland Park admitted that she didn’t find many redeeming qualities in the secondary characters.
“I had no sympathy for Crete,” Zane said. “He was too creepy, and this pervaded the novel’s tone.”
But Norcott-Mahany said she liked seeing characters who she felt weren’t completely good or evil but flawed and realistic.
“Even Crete wasn’t completely slimy,” she said. “He loved Lucy, and while he appeared threatening, he never hurt her. And Carl is a master at juggling his emotions regarding Crete. Even Jamie, the town druggie, isn’t totally bad. He’s a bit of a hero at the end of the book.”
Readers mentioned the supporting female characters of Ransome and Birdie.
Zane felt that Birdie was a bit too eccentric and cliched as a rural character. Marilyn James of Kansas City felt Ransome was the most conflicted of all the women.
“She was indebted to Crete, and she knew he was doing something wrong,” James said, “but she wouldn’t be any help to anyone if she didn’t keep herself alive. She tried to make amends when she gave Lucy the baby quilt she made from Lila’s clothes.”
Patton summed up the discussion praising the beauty of McHugh’s writing: “She did a lovely job of getting inside the psychology of ordinary people — their brains, their hearts and the remorse they feel when they are the survivors.”
Kaite Stover is director of readers’ services for the Kansas City Public Library.
FYI Book Club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. If you would like to participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch for the next selection, “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman, to be introduced in FYI.