A gripping novel about facing family secrets
Reviewed in the United States on 24 September 2017
Can we ever escape our past, or will the lies we’ve told ourselves and those we love catch up with us? And if they do, what toll will they exact on the people we left and the ones we love now? This is the central question in Susan Clayton-Goldner’s novel, "A Bend in the Willow," with its focus on our capacity for harm and our ability to forgive and move beyond it.
Catherine Henry is a woman with secrets who seems to live a charmed life in Tucson, Arizona, with Ben, a caring husband and doctor, and Michael, her outgoing young son. All is well until Michael is injured in a fall from a horse, and medical tests show him to be suffering from leukemia. Without a transplant from a donor whose bone marrow closely matches his, he may die. Although relatives are usually the best matches, neither Catherine nor Ben are a good fit, and searches for a donor elsewhere prove fruitless.
With nowhere else to turn, Catherine must seek out relatives she long ago left behind – an adult son she gave up for adoption as a teenager, and her estranged brother, Kyle, still living in her hometown in Kentucky. Along the way she must confront the ghosts of her past as the daughter of a poor and troubled family who is hiding a childhood trauma.
Every significant character in the book is carefully drawn. Ben’s struggle to reconcile his love for Catherine as he begins to distrust her is examined in detail early in the book along with Catherine’s guilt about her former life as Robin Lee Carter. As the plot shifts more to Catherine, her pangs of conscience create an irresistible momentum.
She, Ben, her brother, Kyle, his wife, Lucy, their daughter, Loralee, and the ailing Michael, all gain our sympathy. All have flaws they must face, as the children hang on in the wings, not realizing they might have an important role to play as well.
The issues raised by the story – the pain lying and secrets lead to, the power of honesty as a catharsis for change, and the struggle between protectiveness and a willingness to take risks when a life is at stake – are all crafted seamlessly into the plot.
Dialogue and description have equal parts to play in the book, with finely wrought details making each locale vivid, especially Catherine’s Kentucky hometown. The community, despite her painful memories of it, becomes a redemptive force with a character all its own. In "A Bend in the Willow" Clayton-Goldner has given us a thoughtful, gripping narrative that is personal, immediate, and achingly memorable.