Hardcover, 362 pages
Juliana Birdsong is your typical eight-year-old with an obsessive-compulsive mother who's too paranoid to leave the house. Making double-lined, black-out drapes to protect their home from the outside world, her mother only looks up from her sewing machine when Perry Mason comes on TV - the type of successful man Juliana should marry if she wants to get anywhere in life.
But Juliana has other things to worry about. Night after night, she's awakened by a terrifying dream where she's chased down a long, tapering highway on the back of her father's motorcycle heading for an enormous, twisting funnel cloud that waits on the horizon. Even after locking it away inside her bedside drawer, Juliana wonders if there are parts of the dream she hasn't seen yet.
Years later, she finds dynamic trial lawyer, Oliver Morrissey and she marries him for love. Life is going reasonably well for the priviledged socialite - that is, until she's faced with losing everything, including her children.
Stepping out of her Lexus, Juliana peels off her Chanel sunglasses and glares up at her childhood home that's now smothered in ivy. Inside, there's only her estranged father left, who she's sure caused her mother's death. Moving in, she discovers a nude portrait of her with an odd set of tiny red footprints on the ankle, and another surprise she's not expecting: Her father has Alzheimer's and he needs her. Plus, a shipment of mysterious oil paintings arrives, all with his signature.
When Juliana puts a brush in his hand, it sets off a surreal time warp and the canvases eerily transform, painting a different picture of the parents she thought she knew. As tragic secrets emerge that mirror her own, Juliana's old demons come back to haunt her.
Consumed with his care and desperate for her old life back, the dream is still chasing her and it's catching up fast. Just when she can't run any faster, the funnel cloud is waiting on the horizon, twisting even faster than before.
Painting Juliana by Martha Louise Hunter is a very highly recommended novel about a woman whose life is in complete shambles, or, maybe, just perhaps, in transition.
"I woke up, I'm alive, the dream's not real. I woke up, I'm alive, the dream's not real..." As an adult who suddenly has way-too-much personal stress to handle, Juliana Birdsong certainly might have wished that repeating this mantra that helped her endure her reoccurring nightmare as a child, would make her current nightmare situation end. Her marriage to her emotionally abusive lawyer husband, Oliver Morrissey, is ending. He's kicked her out of their Austin, Texas, home and won't let her see their 14 year old twins, Lindsey and Adam. To make matters worse, she discovers her father has Alzheimer's and needs constant care so she is going to have to move into his house, which is falling apart.
Once she moves into her father's house, she must face the past which is full of unanswered questions, chiefly what happened in her parent's marriage and what lead to the death of her mother, Carmen, 22 years earlier, right after Juliana graduated from college. Juliana enters her bedroom, left exactly as she left it when she left for college at age 18, "Things left behind I didn't remember I'd missed. It's a diorama of me, stopping at age eighteen. The age of my arrested development. (pg. 51)" She has had no relationship with her father since her mother's death, at which time she felt his behavior was as per usual M. O.: he was selfish and caught up with his own grief. She suspects he had something to do with her mother's death. Now she is surprisingly the one he has given the Power of Attorney over his affairs.
When crates of paintings signed by her father show up, Juliana must figure out what they mean, especially after she receives a mysterious phone call from a woman who seems to know her. While missing her children desperately, Juliana must try to figure out her father's affairs while her husband is trying to sabotage her every step. She's also starting to drink too much.
Anyone trying to care for or deal with someone suffering from Alzheimer's will feel a connection to Juliana.
Oliver is a bully and an a**hole of the first degree. He had planned to divorce her and had everything arranged long before she knew a thing. He ambushes her and has her served with divorce papers while they are in couples counseling. He has told their children lies about her. He cancels her credit card so she has no way to pay for anything. Juliana's story is, I'm sad to admit, the story of many women. As Anne Lamott wrote: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better." Although I rarely get personal in my book reviews, I immediately felt a kinship with Juliana. I was also kicked out by an increasingly abusive husband, ambushed in couples counseling (although not served with papers) and had my credit card cancelled and left with no way to pay for anything. I was lucky that my children were adults. But, enough of that...
Many women will relate to Juliana's confusion and inaction in the face of what seems like overwhelming stress. That doesn't mean that you won't be taking back to Juliana and telling her to use her head. She's a smart woman and she needs to start behaving like one. It does seem inexplicable that she wants to get back together with Oliver, even if it is explained as a means to seeing her children again and she should have figured out that Oliver owes her some support, even through her stress induced fog.
There is also magic realism swirling around as the narrative deals with Juliana's childhood nightmare and the story of the paintings.
It's hard to believe this is Martha Louise Hunter's debut novel. It's well written, and engaging. She had me hooked and anxiously reading right to the end. The characters are well developed and the revelations are nicely spaced in the context of the evolving plot. Even if you don't understand or agree with all of Juliana's actions, you will consistently be hoping the best for her and want to will her the strength to succeed and overcome.
I loved this quote: "A lie didn't happen, so it's not a memory... The truth you remember. You don't even have to try." (pg. 178)
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the author for review purposes.
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