Jan and I were very much looking forward to breaking out of our thriller mode, so we decided upon reading Kristan Higgins’s new book, Always the Last to Know. It gave us a much to talk about and think over as Ms Higgins explored a troubled family dynamic.
Complicated family dynamics are at the heart of this novel. Barb and John are one day shy of their 50thanniversary when John’s severe stroke throws the family out of kilter (not a spoiler, it happens in the first pages). Their marriage has long gone stale and after the stroke a devastating long-held secret is revealed.
Barb and John have two children and looking into the past brings understanding to the present. Juliet was the long-hoped for baby after years of infertility. Barb throws herself 100% into mothering Juliet, who, in her eyes, is nauseatingly “perfect”. John feels left out and so busies himself with work and his own pursuits. What marriage could thrive under such circumstances? When Juliet is 11, Barb surprisingly gets pregnant and they have their second daughter, Sadie. Alas, she’s not perfect and Barb has difficulty bonding with her, but John is smitten. There’s a line in the sand in this family with Barb and Juliet on one side and Sadie and John on the other. Favoritism is damaging and is the perfect recipe for sibling rivalry.
Told through alternating points of view, all bear the weight of expectations and unmet dreams. Barb’s vision of a dream marriage is shattered. Perfection is a hard standard for Juliet to uphold. Free-spirit Sadie, who gives it all up to pursue her artistic dreams in NYC, is struggling. When they are thrown back together in their small-town due to John’s stroke, tensions are high.
Not all the characters are likable. I struggled in the beginning, especially with prickly Barb, who does and says things I had trouble understanding. But have faith, as the story progresses she becomes more sympathetic. The real villain is not a person, but the way this family relates to one another. Caro, Barb’s best friend, is the true heroine of this story. I loved her – we all need a Caro in our lives!
This all sounds depressing but it is not. There is humor and also a sweet love story. A story that made me smile and brought a lump to my throat. (What does it say about me that it was a dolphin that caused the lump in my throat and the tear in my eye?)
This is a genre I call women’s fiction with substance. Kristan Higgins never fails to write authentic characters who feel relatable. Maybe because of the messiness in my own family of origin I found I could relate to this family on several levels.
Life throws us curve balls. Family life is messy and complicated and often crumbles under the weight of disappointments, betrayals, lack of communication, and misunderstandings. But from the ashes a new and different version of family can be forged. Love in all its forms and how this family adapts to their new reality makes for a lovely story.
*I received a digital copy of this book via Edelweiss. All opinions are my own.
* This was a buddy read with my friend Marialyce, one we both enjoyed.
Yikes, this book hit pretty close to home as my husband and I are close to celebrating our fiftieth wedding anniversary. Are we testy and bored with one another I wonder as the blurb suggests? While Barb and John have two daughters, we have four and wonder is our relationship with them and they with one another enough for us all? Well, this book indeed had me thinking and looking for our telling signs.
The Frosts, Barb and John, have an “I live with you, but really could do without you being around relationship”. It’s sad really, for fifty years together is a long time and to be unhappy for a large portion of it is even sadder. It seems that John has his job to retreat to while Barb seems to focus her love and energy on their oldest daughter, Juliet, the perfect child, the one we all sometimes think we have. Their other daughter, favored by her father, Sadie, is determined to be an accomplished artist, a definite free spirited young woman, who wants no part of the small town life she grew up in. Both girls are grown and because of the way their family dynamics evolved, there is antagonism, hard feelings, and such a total lack of understanding.
Did you ever want to tear into the pages of a book and slap a character or two? Certainly, there are some who deserve a good smack and for me Barb was one of them. She seemed to be constantly miserable, one could feel her unhappiness soaking through the pages and though John does have a secret surprise hidden away, life with Barb must have been a real trial. This couple never really talked. They just seem to exist side by side, day after day, year after year. When tragedy strikes, as it always does, both Barb and John reevaluate their lives and try to come to a point where understanding and love triumph over hate.
The daughters were dichotomies of each other. One girl is so serious, so straightforward, the one who seems to have conquered life and has all the jigsaw puzzle pieces together. The other sister, intent on finding herself an artist seems to be a bit of a train wreck, flitting about and not really seeing that proverbial forest for the trees. Both girls are troubled, impacted by the life they led at home perceiving the not so loving relationship their parents had, and thinking perhaps would this be them?
I very much enjoyed this sojourn into the characters of these four people. They were complex, unknowing, and fearful of the journey they had embarked on. All of them seemed to have delayed important decisions, had words unspoken, regrets aplenty, and yet they still had a chance to make it all better if they only grasped the ability to forgive and maybe eventually to forget. It’s a cautionary tale for us all.
Bottom line is we all get testy, we all get bored. However, it is the relationships that last that allow the words to be spoken, the feelings to be expressed, the hurt to be acknowledged, and the love to be found that brings each and every one of us to happiness and fulfillment.
Thank you to Edelweiss for a copy of this interesting family drama.
Kristan Higgins is the New York Times, USA TODAY, Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of 19 novels, which have been translated into more than two dozen languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. Her books have received dozens of awards and accolades, including starred reviews from Kirkus, The New York Journal of Books, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal , People and Booklist. Her books regularly appear on the lists for best novels of the year. Kristan is also a cohost of the Crappy Friends podcast, which discusses the often complex dynamics of female friendships, with her friend and fellow writer, Joss Dey.
The proud descendant of a butcher and a laundress, Kristan lives in Connecticut with her heroic firefighter husband. They own several badly behaved pets and are often visited by their entertaining and long-lashed children.