Guest post by Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award winner Jennifer Handford.
There is nothing ordinary about ordinary life. My favorite authors peek into a typical life and reveal something extraordinary: Anne Tyler, Sue Miller, and Wally Lamb exemplify this type of writing. No character is one-dimensional; each carries a tangled web of losses and regrets. These talented authors know just how to pick at the right thread, enough to loosen the entire knot.
At the core of my new book, Daughters for a Time, is a tangle of relationships. My protagonist, Helen, is straightjacketed by her past: a father who left and a mother who died. After being cared for by her competent older sister, Claire, Helen is now grown up and ready to start a family of her own. She believes that being a mother will heal her wounds and compensate for the daughterhood that was taken from her, but she is unable to get pregnant. Finally, Helen adopts and experiences the long-sought joy of holding her new daughter. Just then, she is blindsided by the worst possible news: Her sister has cancer.
I am fascinated by the notion that joy and grief fight for space in our lives. I was drawn to the idea that Helen found happiness—or at least peace—when she got what she wanted: a baby, the start of a family. But she also was losing Claire. This is an extreme example of being dealt the good with the bad, but it happens all the time.
Daughters revolves around two sisters with wildly different personalities. They are bonded by the past but not demonstrative with their affection. They offend and get offended. They hold secrets and perpetuate half-truths. If they weren’t sisters, they might not have chosen each other as friends. When Claire gets sick, though, new roles emerge and regret bubbles to the surface.
As Claire’s illness progresses, the sisters grow closer. Confessions are made; grief surrenders to affection. Helen becomes a surrogate for her sister’s pain but also a vessel for her joy, as she tends to her niece alongside her daughter. Helen never wanted Claire to die, but it takes Claire dying in order for Helen to live.
The roles we play define who we are. At one point, Helen realizes that each of the women in her life was somebody’s daughter, but each had been robbed of that position. This strikes Helen as terribly sad, because who wouldn’t want to be a daughter forever?
In the ordinary we find the extraordinary, lives that reveal themselves in one way over another. We pluck at one strand in the knotted ball and make the tangle tighter; we pluck at another and set the entire knot free.