Sam Callahan had an unusual life growing up in GroVont, Wyoming. The only child of feminist, single mother Lydia; to call Sam’s upbringing eccentric would be kind. These days his daughter from his first relationship (Shannon) is grown, his relationship with her mother Maurey is fairly stable, his marriage with Gilia is a blessing and his work at the Virgin Birth Home for Unwed Mothers fills his life with meaning. All of that is about to change however; for Lydia is coming home from jail, and she won’t settle for anything less than a triumphal return. However, when her parole officer assigns her the task of recording 99 year-old Oly Pedersen’s life story, the winds of change sweep in for many residents of GroVont.
Fifteen years after publishing Social Blunders, the final volume in the GroVont Trilogy (begun in Skipped Parts and Sorrow Floats), Tim Sandlin rewards “Sandlinistas” (die-hard fans) everywhere with Lydia. As anyone who has read the first three novels knows, Lydia is everything loud, obnoxious and self-indulgent. Sandlin reminds readers of this early in the novel: “She’d gone into prison as a force to be reckoned with and come out as a tiny shred of aged mass…Hatred, she could fight; being dismissed was intolerable.”
Lydia is so blatant with her anger and hostility that readers will soon want to swat her away like an annoying fly buzzing around their ear. Her son Sam has spent much of his life wondering why his mother treats those she loves so horribly: “Lydia would starve before not tipping a waitress. She’d go back home if the alternative was parking in a handicapped slot, yet she lied to and browbeat the family she loved.” Even if you’ve read all of the previous novels, the amount of rage within Lydia can be difficult to understand, often rendering her motivations positively incomprehensible.
Yet her family continues to try for some sort of a relationship with this woman who could have written the manual on emotional abuse. And thus we reach the crux of the problem – readers simply must trust Sandlin’s plans for the novel and hop on for the ride. For “Sandlinistas” this is no problem; we’ve been committed to the ride since Skipped Parts but anyone beginning the journey with Lydia may find it impossible.
Truly unlikable characters are easy for readers to dismiss and therefore can be an effective distraction from the subtler messages writers wish to share. I believe that Sandlin uses Lydia as the pivot point for his novel the same way a magician uses a pretty assistant and wand twirling – look over here so you don’t see what I’m doing around back. Lydia distracts from the message Sandlin’s secreted within Oly’s story, providing time it to unfurl (even though its importance is announced from the beginning by both the quieter narrative and the use of a distinct font for his sections).
If you haven’t read anything by Tim Sandlin, don’t start with Lydia. Do yourself a favour; grab a copy of Skipped Parts and start the journey to GroVont, Wyoming at the beginning. It’s worth the trip!
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: April 12, 2011
Author Website: www.timsandlin.com
(Disclosure: A review copy of this novel was provided by the publisher.)