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?