In Susan Conley’s debut novel defined by deep relationships, the most intriguing alliances get neglected and overlooked for the more commonplace and predictable. Willow – called Willie – moves to Paris to be closer to her peripatetic brother Luke who was most recently in China bringing safe water to far-flung villages, but has settled in the City of Light for love. Their mother passed away a year earlier, and for Willie who is estranged from their once-philandering-now-reborn-Christian father back in Northern California, Luke is her only constant family.
Poetry professor by day, Willie volunteers at night to teach English to refugee girls held at an asylum center while awaiting their immigration hearings. Her students are too-young survivors of violence and tragedy, and Willie finds herself becoming especially attached to Gita who seeks immediate safety from her local rapist brother-in-law, and hopes to be saved from child marriage to a much older groom in her native India. At the center, Willie finds herself ever hopeful of crossing paths with the girls’ lawyer Macon (named so by his American South loving French mother and Estonian father by way of Canada).
Go ahead and take a few guesses as to what will unfold: we’re talking a gay brother in the 1980s, a “funny man with hiking boots” who makes Willie’s stomach do flips, and a pair of deserting parents (the avoided living father, the longed-after missing mother). Over almost 400 pages – or more than 14.5 hours stuck in the ears (narrator Cassandra Campbell clearly enjoys exaggerating her French accents) – Willie succumbs to an awful lot of navel-gazing as her brother weakens, her lover beckons, and her father flees (again).
A redistribution of self-absorption to beyond-the-comfort-zone exploration – about 75%/25% here – would have been a vast narrative improvement. Repetitive street names and places (more than a dozen references to Avenue Victor Hugo alone!) were also unnecessary – it’s a novel, not a walking tour. Verdict? By condensing Willie’s myopic tendencies in favor of further developing the lives of her refugee students, Conley undoubtedly could have written a more provocative, captivating story only hinted at here.