Leslie Jamison's debut novel, The Gin Closet, opens with Stella, a twenty-something woman working for an inspirational writer who treats her horribly. She is dating a married man who also treats her badly. Stella has been caring for her beloved grandmother, who is in failing health.
After a bad fall, her grandmother calls for Matilda, a name Stella does not know. Stella asks her mother about the name, and her cold, methodical mother matter-of-factly confirms the fact that Stella has an aunt. Tilly has been estranged from her family for over thirty years.
With her life stagnating, Stella decides to go to Nevada to find Tilly and tell her of her mother's passing. Although her mother has told her that Tilly was a wild teenager, heavily into drugs, alcohol and men, Stella was shocked when she found a drunken Tilly living in a filthy trailer filled with trash.
Stella moves in with Tilly and tries to help her get her life on track. She learns about Tilly's son, Abe, born to Tilly when she was working as prostitute, and raised by Abe's father. Abe wants his mother to come live with him in San Francisco, and Stella goes along too.
Abe, Tilly and Stella form a family of their own, albeit one that is tenuous at best. Stella works at a Bed & Breakfast, and Abe gets a Tilly a job at the bank where he works. The reader pulls for these people to make a family life that works, but reality soon intercedes.
Jamison paints a brutally honest portrait of a woman in crisis. Tilly is a tragic, memorable character, and her struggle to maintain her sobriety and fit in with 'decent' society is so real and sad. Anyone who has dealt with alcoholism in their own family will no doubt recognize this battle.
Tilly had built a wall around herself, and Jamison has the perfect line to describe Tilly's life.
Tilly told me once about the experience of giving birth. She said she screamed louder than she'd known was possible. "it was the first time I really heard my own voice," she said. "I wanted it to keep on hurting forever."
The book is also about the damage of keeping secrets. After Tilly reveals one that changed her life forever, the reader has to wonder how different her life would have been if she felt she could have told someone. Would her mother and sister have believed her? Would they have helped her? If she had found her own voice as a child, would she still have been banished from her family?
The Gin Closet is not an easy book to read; it will hurt your heart. But it will also make you more empathetic to people in your lives, people you feel don't live up to your expectations. Jamison made a wise decision to alternate narrators, Tilly and Stella, allowing the reader insight into two fascinating characters.
Rating 4 of 5 stars
Thanks to Caitlin from Free Press Publicity and Simon & Schuster for providing me a copy of the book for review.