Review: Children of the Waters, Carleen Brice; or, A nearly unified theory of everything (that makes me enjoy a book)

Two things:

One, I really really liked this book.

Two, I love the Wish List feature on Overdrive. Overdrive is a flawed and buggy system that forces you to use a very buggy program to access its content (Adobe Digital Editions you are the worst), but it is awesome to be able to add things to my TBR pile with just a click and access them anywhere with an internet connection. I know this sounds slightly like I am doing a commercial for OverDrive, but I’m not. It is my genuine opinion. If OverDrive were paying me to say nice things about them, they’d probably want me to be nicer about their interface. The Wish List feature is why I finally finally read this book after having it on my TBR list for a hundred years.

Children of the Waters is about two half-sisters, one white and one biracial, who grow up unaware of each other’s existence. Trish, the white sister, was raised by her mother’s parents; she’s now divorced from her (black) husband and raising her teenage son Will, who is encountering blatant racism for the first time in Trish’s consciousness (though not, of course, for the first time in Will’s life). Billie, the biracial sister, was adopted by a black family (she doesn’t know she’s adopted), and she’s now fallen pregnant unexpectedly and is struggling with her boyfriend’s unwillingness to be a father. Trish discovers from a neighbor that the half-sister she never met, whom she believed died in a car accident, has been alive all along. She’s at a place in her life where she feels the lack of a sister; Billie, with her close and loving family, is not.

There’s a lot in this book, and I’ve read some reviews that say it’s too many things: Billie has a chronic illness, Will freaks Trish out by discovering religion, Trish is thinking about opening her own vet clinic, there’s a ton of stuff about race and prejudice and traditional religions and fertility and masculinity and parenting. It’s a lot, but I don’t think it’s too many things. It’s all things that people’s lives hold. You don’t get to stop dealing with prejudice for a few weeks while you figure out your problematic pregnancy, you know?

The initial premise of Children of the Waters is a teeny bit soapy, although not particularly improbable (an opinion of mine confirmed by an interview I read with Carleen Brice in which she says that something quite similar to this happened to her sister-in-law). What I really loved was that all the problems, and all the characters’ reactions to them, felt incredibly recognizable to me. Yes, these are things that happen to people; these are stupid, careless things that get said; these are the feelings you would have if you already had a large loving family and some stranger showed up suddenly and said, Now you are my sister, let’s be sisters now. I liked it that the characters are all trying to be good and having a hard time figuring out how. And I liked it that they thought and talked to each other about the actions they were taking, and I loved it that when they became able to see that they had done a wrong, they apologized and tried to make it right. Nothing was easy but everyone tried to do the right thing.

I also loved it so much that Carleen Brice doesn’t stack the deck against any of her characters. Trish and Billie are very, very different people with different ideas about what the world is or should be, and it would be easy for Brice to hint that one of them is doing it righter than the other one. But she really doesn’t. When they — or any of the other characters — are arguing or disagreeing with each other, I sometimes agreed with one of them more than the other (like really, you should just know what Juneteenth is, that is just a thing people should know), but often I thought both sides were making good points. Or at least that both sides had good reasons for holding the positions they held and thinking the thoughts they thought.

And, just, why isn’t more fiction like that? (I’ll get to my unified theory of everything in a second.) Why do people have to be mysterious and brooding about aqueducts all the time? I like books in which decent characters are forced by circumstance to take long, hard looks at their values and figure out how they apply to real life in situations that are not terribly clear-cut. That is my ABSOLUTE DAMN FAVORITE.

So the closest I think I shall ever come to a unified theory of my own reading taste is this: I like books in which principles and values are challenged by a changing reality in interesting ways and the holders of those values have to figure out what to do about it. This is a pretty broad scope of things. But looking at my “About” page, which man, I have not updated in years, where I list some of my favorite books, they pretty much all fall into this rubric. And all the books I’ve given one or two stars to in the past few years have been books that appeared like they would have interesting values/reality conflicts, but did not. It’s also why I do not enjoy books about how stifling the status quo is and the search for meaning within a routine world. Boring! Boring! Boring! Have some new situation for your characters to confront and then we can talk.

What do y’all think of my theory? Too obvious? Too broad? Doesn’t encompass Shirley Jackson and Beau Geste enough? Not useful in finding books because I won’t know until you try the books whether they’ve done the values/reality conflict in an interesting way? Do you have a unified theory of what interests you in books?

27 thoughts on “Review: Children of the Waters, Carleen Brice; or, A nearly unified theory of everything (that makes me enjoy a book)

  1. I think “values/reality conflict” is a great way to sum up your reading, but I also think it does make you a target for false advertising. Of course, isn’t any taste that way? For instance, I love queer romance, but often novels with actual queer romances in them are cagey about their contents.

    As for me… I don’t think I really have one, or, at the very least, I haven’t sat down and thought about it. I don’t know what would encompass both the majesty of The Lord of the Rings and the lightly snarky and weepingly beautiful friendship in Team Human.

    • Yes, exactly! You can only ever guess whether a book is going to have the thing you like in the way you like it. It’s a tricky thing.

      I haven’t read Team Human but I have been meaning to for a while. Lord of the Rings totally fits into my category. I should reread Lord of the Rings. I love that book.

      • Oh, The Lord of the Rings. There’s a very good audiobook production narrated by Rob Inglis, if you’re interesting.

        Team Human is kind of my favorite YA novel at the moment; agency and friendship and diverse casts and vampires! Everything that is good in life!

  2. I think your unified theory is very, very interesting, because it encompasses what I find most interesting about Life. Something changes, and then you find that you have changed too. Sometimes you wish you could go back, but you never, ever can. Sometimes you wish other people would change with you, but weirdly, they stay the same. This is what I loved about The Persian Boy, and about The Time Traveler’s Wife, and [too many books to mention.]

    • Yes, it’s what I find most interesting about life too. Although I have probably just picked it up from you. And this is why you make such excellent company for me (and vice versa, I hope). It is interesting in life and interesting in books and is exactly why I can’t be bothered with books about ennui.

  3. I don’t think it’s too broad at all – all good drama (and that includes whatever HBO is cooking up at a given time) is rooted in the character having his/her preconceptions challenged and either adapting or not adapting. Elizabeth Bennet dismisses D’arcy as a snob. He despises her family. They both change. And ‘The Hobbit’ is all about a character (in early middle-age, too) moving outside his comfort zone.

    That said, I’ve lost count of how many times a Hollywood blockbuster sets up an intriguing premise only to fudge the issue. I used to think this was just laziness. Now I wonder if this is because expressing a definite opinion will mean losing a chunk of your audience? – ie, people who might not necessarily agree with what you have to say? Maybe it’s – strategically – better to be a bit vague when it comes to solutions.

    Similarily, a lot of literary fiction seems to tackle contentious issues but any impact is diluted via a beautiful (and distancing) prose style. I can’t help wondering if this is deliberate, too. Readers can feel they’ve read an important book without having their feathers overly ruffled.

    • OH MY GOD I am just going to vent about Looper for a minute in response to what you just said about setting up an intriguing premise and fudging the issue. Did you see Looper? Looper was this extremely chilling movie about actions and consequences and responsibility, and nothing’s really clear-cut, and at the end — I’m about to spoil the movie for you so look away if you don’t want to know — at the end the resolution of the movie is basically, the kid won’t grow up to be a bad guy if he grows up with his mother (rather than as an orphan). And I just felt so cheated that the solution to this twisty, scary movie was Mother Love ™. I felt like the script didn’t have the guts to pay off all the darkness it had set up until that point.

      Which is to say, I very very very much agree with everything you’ve just said. I think in movies there’s a fear of being contentious, and in literary fiction there’s a fear of being sentimental or moralistic/didactic.

  4. Totally (I’m just agreeing with you agreeing with me, so it’s easy to be gracious) – especially your disinction between the ‘why’ for films (fear of being contentious) as opposed to literary fiction (being moralistic just isn’t cool).

  5. A good example for me was a Dogma film called ‘Breaking the Waves’ – a naive Scottish lass living in a remote village marries a Norwegian oil worker. When he’s paralysed in accident, he insists she find sexual release with strangers in order to overcome her grief. I was gobsmacked – promiscuity as therapy? I mean, seriously? – and genuinely curious to see how the film was going to prove its argument. Well (spoiler alert) he got better, she got raped and murdered. The end.

  6. Don’t read The Dinner. I have discovered that I can tolerate books about awful things except when the awful things are done by awful people by choice.
    And I had to go look up Juneteenth. Seems like something I should have known.

    • Okay, I won’t read it. I also hate reading about awful people. It bums me out.

      Mumsy says it’s not fair for me to expect everyone to know about Juneteenth, by the way, but I’m pleased you know about it now! I mean, it’s just so fun to say. Juneteenth!

  7. No, your theory makes sense (and I say that whilst liking the routine books you describe). Changing realities invite action, making the book more interesting and complex. I am completely with you on books that appear to be one thing and turn out another, especially if you picked it up because those appearances aligned so much with what you like to read and care about.

    • I know, that’s the worst when that happens. And it’s pretty common — synopses can only give you a small amount of information about a book really.

  8. I do like it when you are given opposing sides to an issue or problem and both have compelling reasons behind them. That sense of paradox, complex perspective, the impossibility of black and white, call it what you like, is something that fiction can do terrifically well. I don’t have a theory of my reading though – precisely because any one theory calls into being alternatives and challenges to its authority. 🙂

    • Yes to the compelling reasons! It’s nice when the author doesn’t seem to be saying one side is right and the other is wrong, because on a lot of issues there are two sides, two arguments to be made that have valid ideas behind them. It’s amazing how often stories tell you what you must think about everything, rather than letting you decide.

  9. I think my unified theory of reading is: I like books that tell me real things about the way people think and feel and behave. Any setting for that is okay (vampires, ghost towns, space, King Arthur’s court, Paris apartments full of ennui) and any kind of behavior is okay (love, family, travel, stampedes, betrayal, languor, seven deadlies) as long as it shows me the human heart. If it’s false to human reality, I hates it my precious. If it rings true, I loves it, at least to a degree consonant with how good the writing is.

  10. Pingback: Team Human | Necromancy Never Pays

  11. I love your theory. I’m not sure if it’s exactly my theory to explain why I like/don’t like books, but as I read it, I made the adjustments, and I understand my likes better. And there are exceptions, depending on what I’d call the writer’s ‘readability for my brain’. Some prose just does not match how my brain thinks.

  12. Pingback: Review: Days of Blood and Starlight, Laini Taylor | Jenny's Books

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