Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes. Margo Orlando Littell, author of Each Vagabond by Name, tells an enthralling and nuanced story about family, womanhood, and coming to terms with a left-behind past.
One of the best things about getting involved with Book Twitter and sharing my blog with more than two people is that I have been introduced to some fantastic books that I might not otherwise have come across. I want to thank Lori @TNBBC for getting in touch with me, and for offering me a copy of The Distance From Four Points in exchange for an honest review. Do follow her on Twitter and check out the eclectic mix of books that she promotes – I have my eye on several more!
Margo Orlando Littell’s novel was a real experience for me – it was one of those books that crept up on me slowly, and revealed layers of meaning that I was not expecting when I started reading. It begins with a simple premise: Robin and her teenage daughter are forced by circumstance to move from their comfortable lives in suburbia into one of the decrepit rental properties her husband bought before his death in Robin’s home town of Four Points. At first I was slightly taken aback that the ‘secrets’ of Robin’s past were almost casually revealed in the opening chapters – we learn very early on that she had been a sex worker as a teenager – but it gradually became clearer and clearer that I had underestimated the author and the book itself. This is not a sensationalist account of the past coming back to haunt a reformed character: it is a different kind of reckoning, a lesson in acceptance and finding peace. As with the very best fiction, I learned a lot from reading this book.
As the story develops, so the language becomes more nuanced and descriptive, and from my initial impressions of this being quite a straightforward book, I moved towards being both emotionally and intellectually challenged by the characters and the themes of this novel. I have to admit, I did not warm to Robin at first: I found her behaviour quite hard to fathom, and her rejection of her former friend, Cindy, when they first meet again after twenty years or so, actually made me feel quite antagonistic towards her. However, as their relationship develops and their lives become more entangled, I found myself beginning to understand both women, in a way that reflects the depth that Littell manages to create in her characters. Robin and Cindy became real to me, and Cindy in particular provides the novel with both humour and heart, without any cloying sentimentality. Other characters, too, are much more than they first appear: the landlords, the ex-lover, the teen mum – each is three-dimensional, complex, intriguing. These are characters who are only familiar on the surface – Littell reveals their uniqueness and, I think, in doing so, questions the reader’s own assumptions alongside Robin’s.
The descriptions of the crumbling, decaying properties and the physical labour needed to repair them to even a semi-acceptable level were another highlight of the book for me, as well. I was very interested to find out that in her research, Littell unwittingly became a landlord herself (you can read about her experience here) – and her prose certainly has an authentic ring to it. The tension between the gentrification process and the landlords’ need to make a living was also something I had never considered. The author’s determination to show every side of the argument is more than just commendable – it is REAL, it reflects the messiness of life in all its complications, rejecting false dichotomies and revelling in the prismatic, multi-faceted nature of human experience.
I haven’t read many novels that have sent me on a similar trajectory of starting out complacent and then catching myself and realising I had grossly underestimated the book, and it was a really interesting experience. This book is so much more than it seems, and it surprised me at every turn. I would be very interested to read her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, and will certainly be keeping an eye out for more works by this quietly subversive author.
The Distance From Four Points is out now, published by the University of New Orleans Press.