Books like this make me wish I was in a book club. I really wanted to talk with other readers and get their thoughts on the story. I wanted to know if they were as depressed as I was while reading and if they found any hope in the ending.
Pearl Tull is on her deathbed. The book starts with her worrying about her adult children, wishing they had more mothers to to care for them and keep them on the right path. Pearl’s husband left the family in 1944 and she kept them close and raised them on her own. She is a solitary figure who never asked for help and built her life around her children. The opening chapter makes you feel her frustration knowing she has to leave and there’s still so much she wants to see her children accomplish.
And then her children get their own chapters and everything changes. We see Pearl mentally and physically abuse them. Cody, the oldest, is filled with jealous rage for his brother Ezra and quietly attacks him with cruel pranks while they are growing up. Jenny, the only daughter, is caught in her mother’s twisted mind that she will never be good enough for anyone, and yet must marry the perfect man.
But the story still changes, as it should, depending on who is telling it. Cody’s rage fuels his every movement. He constantly looks for slights against him and hangs on to these grudges. Knowing his girlfriends lose interest in him when they meet Ezra, he immediately brings them to the house to test them. As soon as they ask about Ezra, even if innocently, he smugly gets rid of them for being like the rest while piling on more hatred for his brother.
Ezra seems both clueless and frantically hopeful. He genuinely has no clue what Cody’s girlfriends think of him. He would never hurt Cody, so he can’t even form the the idea that he would take up with one of these girls. As he gets older he tries to force his family into behaving like a family “should”. He is the owner of the Homesick Restaurant and unsuccessfully tries to have his family sit down for a full meal time and time again. Before they can finish, and sometimes even before they all sit down, Pearl or Cody will feel slighted or insulted or ignored or tricked and everyone will storm out. Jenny doesn’t understand why Ezra tries and will rush to try and appease the wounded party or escape off on her own.
Jenny’s chapters are different from her brothers’ because she has to deal with her mother’s expectations for her as a woman. Pearl constantly criticizes the way she looks and acts, telling her she is worthless and hopeless, but then speaks eagerly of Jenny’s future. It’s clear that Pearl is projecting her own life on to her daughter’s without being able to identify with her in any way. In some ways Jenny is able to navigate her family by not attaching to any of them, yet she finds herself returning home time and time again. She marries and divorces several times. Where Ezra wants a family meal to define normalcy, Jenny tries on different marriages in the hopes that one of them will be right.
By the end of the book, you have a solid picture of the dysfunctional family. I found myself wondering what things would have been like if the father had stayed. I don’t think it would have mattered. Pearl still would have been filled with disappointment and would have affected her children the same way. There were times I was sympathetic with each character and times where I couldn’t connect with them at all. I can see why people don’t like this book and feel that all of the characters are unsympathetic, but I think that’s because they are written so realistically. Sometimes you have to search to find a redeeming quality in a person. Tyler isn’t going to do the work for you in this book.
One of the main reasons I want a book group for this is because of Ezra. Reading online reviews, people love him. Tyler herself says that he was her favorite character in the book. He’s hopeful and kind and eager. I admired his kindness, especially the way he befriends those that society has deemed unworthy, but I hated how he approached everything in a haze. Cody does terrible things to him and he never reacts. One major event happens between the two of them and Ezra barely seems to notice. It’s like his brain is underdeveloped: if he can’t imagine doing something to a person, he is unable to process the fact that someone did it to him. I know people responded to him because of this, but I wanted him to have one moment where he stood up and knocked stuff over because he had finally been pushed too far and needed to push back.
I liked the idea of the Homesick Restaurant. Ezra is sick at the thought of not having his family, even though he seems to think they are something they are not. The family itself is sick. They are all searching for something and there’s a sense of homesickness, even if none of them every had the thing in the first place.
This is the kind of book that gets under your skin. Something will remind me of a character and I’ll get mad all over again about something that happened, or feel frustrated that a character didn’t work something out, or be sad that no one ever seemed to hear what anyone else was saying. Tyler is a gifted writer and I look forward to reading more of her work.