Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Good Graces: The O'Malley Sisters Ride Again ... And It's About Time

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Good Graces, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Whistling in the Dark. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Seeing as they're all about bad things happening to innocent children, it seems wrong to use words like "love" and "adore" when talking about Lesley Kagen's books. But there you have it. I love them. And I adore the author more and more with each novel she writes. Her stories have dark edges, that's for sure; at the same time, though, they're populated with warmth, humor and a charming nostalgia that keeps me coming back for more. Her newest is no exception.

Good Graces takes place in the summer of 1960, a year after the traumatic events that unfold in Whistling in the Dark. It's scorching hot in Milwaukie and 11-year-old Sally O'Malley wants nothing more than to spend her school-free days sitting at the soda counter in Fitzpatrick's Drugstore. And not just because of the ice cream cones. She's taken a shine to the owner's delicate son, Henry. But as much as Sally longs to flirt away her summer, with a little sister like Troo, she knows it ain't gonna happen. Especially considering the death-bed promise she made to her beloved stepfather in which she vowed to watch Troo like a hawk. Two hawks. As many hawks as it takes to be sure the 10-year-old firecracker behaves herself. Sally's already exhausted from the responsibility and the summer's barely even started.

It doesn't help at all when Troo's nemesis escapes from reform school. Since Troo's the reason he was sent there in the first place, Sally knows "Greasy" Al Molinari will be stomping back to the West Side at any moment, just waiting for an opportunity to pound her little sister. Sally promised her Daddy she'd protect Troo and she will. No matter what it takes. And it's taking a lot. A whole, whole lot. Especially when a string of robberies unsettles the O'Malley's close-knit neighborhood. Everyone knows about Troo's fast fingers and no matter how many times Troo denies stealing from her neighbors, Sally's not sure she can believe her own sister. The cockamamie story Troo constructs to explain the burglaries makes it even more clear - it may be too late for anyone to save Troo O'Malley.

As if worrying about her wayward sister isn't enough to keep Sally up at night, she's still struggling with paralyzing flashbacks from last summer, grief over her stepfather's death, her mother's eternal disappointment, and, of course, finding time to romance a certain young soda jerk. Once again, the carefree days of summer are turning out to be anything but for a determined little girl named Sally O'Malley.

The thing I loved most about Whistling in the Dark is the same thing that endeared me to Good Graces: the entirely authentic, completely engaging voice of Sally O'Malley. Troo, too, of course - her irascible charm makes me laugh every time. The sisters prove what you already know if you've read Kagen's other books: the author's got a gift for bringing the voices of young girls to vivid life. Through their naivete, their unblemished take on life, Kagen looks back at the innocent days of yore, days that maybe weren't so innocent after all. This M.O. has the curious effect of making her stories both chilling and charming, a dichotomy I find difficult to resist. That's why I guarantee that as long as Kagen continues to write, I'll continue to read her. Especially if she keeps going back to those irresistible O'Malley sisters.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, depictions of underrage smoking, violence, intense situations and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Good Graces from the very generous Lesley Kagen. Thank you!

2 comments:

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