Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Wednesday, September 12, 2018: Maximum Shelf: The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

Berkley Books: The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Berkley Books: The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Berkley Books: The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Berkley Books: The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

by Anissa Gray

Set in a small western Michigan town, Anissa Gray's tender and absorbing multigenerational drama is centered around three adult siblings from the devoutly Christian Butler family--Althea, Viola and Lillian--each with an impassioned voice of her own in the story. More different than they are alike, the sisters are united by the absence of their deceased mother and a peripatetic father. We get to know the fourth sibling, a middle child named Joe, only through his sisters' eyes.

Alternating among the powerful first-person accounts, Gray gracefully captures the true essence and soul of each sister in relation to her place in the family hierarchy and the influences, religious and otherwise, that inform their characters. The reader's effortless immersion into their emotional lives is a testament to Gray's artful storytelling and her ability to completely inhabit the fictional world she has created.

Althea, the eldest, was 12 years old when her mother died and her father left to become a traveling preacher, putting the younger children in her care. She married her childhood sweetheart, Proctor, and they have twin daughters, Baby Vi and Kim. She and Proctor open a restaurant and general store and soon make a name for themselves as dependable, honest pillars of their small community. But Althea is ambivalent about motherhood and struggles to parent her own children after raising her siblings.

Viola is a Chicago-based therapist with an eating disorder and a flailing relationship. Her precarious hold on a life beyond bulimia is held together with a studious avoidance of her family. Embedded too deeply in the past, Lillian's life is framed by the loss of her parents and her dead ex-husband. The only sibling to receive her father's love and attention, she inherited the Butler childhood home upon his death and this is where she lives.

Gray introduces the sisters in the midst of a family crisis, immediately drawing the reader into their unfolding drama. Althea and Proctor are in prison, convicted on charges of fraud and embezzlement and facing several years behind bars. Everything they once owned, including their riverfront house, is confiscated and their teenage daughters are effectively homeless. How the Butler siblings deal with this misfortune is at the heart of Gray's beautifully rendered family portrait.

Viola and Lillian step in to care for Baby Vi and Kim. It's an uphill battle and, in the case of Kim, a sadly losing proposition. Joe wants to help with the twins, but Viola and Lillian don't trust him. Each sibling, in reacting to the needs of the girls, reveals their own emotional vulnerabilities. Festering resentments bubble to the surface as Althea, Viola, Joe and Lillian are forced to reckon with each other's past behavior: Althea's favoritism toward Viola and Joe and her rejection of Lillian; Viola's escape to college and the distance she keeps; Joe's abuse of Lillian; and Lillian's role as her father's favorite child.

As the reality of Althea and Proctor's long incarceration sinks in, the sisters soon realize that if they want to set a better tone for the next generation, they first have to embark on a process of healing from past hurts. Matters come to a head when Kim runs away. Her eventual reappearance is both an opportunity to reset the family's relationships with each other and the catalyst for improved connections  between the twins and their mother.

Drawing on powerful imagery to illustrate the underlying common thread among the sisters, Gray defines them as strong and enduring, forces of nature like the Saint Joseph and the Portage rivers that run through their small town. Reminiscent of George Elliot's The Mill on the Floss, the flowing river imagery defines both the sisters' inner strength and the life forces beyond their control.

Althea, Viola and Lillian are surrounded by a richly drawn cast of female characters, each adding color, depth and often humor to the sisters' story. There's strong and enduring Eva, Viola's estranged partner, whose unwavering support saves Viola from herself. Mercedes is Althea's prison inmate friend, the one who looks out for Althea on the inside and is ultimately responsible for finding and rescuing Kim on the outside. And Nai Nai is a feisty elderly Asian woman who keeps Lillian grounded.

The gnawing hunger that informs Althea, Viola and Lillian's inner lives is at the crux of Gray's thoughtful and dynamic exploration of sibling relationships. Electing to heal by coming together instead of staying away, each character is tied to the difficult circumstances of the present, with the past a meddling guest who refuses to leave until forcefully banished to benign and faded memory. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is a powerful debut that deals gently and at the same time fearlessly with the diversity and complexity of family connections. --Shahina Piyarali

Berkley , $26, hardcover, 304p., 9781984802439, February 19, 2019

Berkley Books: The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Anissa Gray: Hunger and Healing

photo: Bonnie J. Heath

Anissa Gray is an Emmy and duPont-Columbia award-winning journalist at CNN Worldwide. She began her career at Reuters as a reporter covering business and international finance. Born in St. Joseph, Mich., Gray studied English and American literature at New York University. She lives in Atlanta, Ga., with her wife. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is her debut novel.

Do aspects of your own childhood in western Michigan feature in the Butler family's story?

My father is a pastor, and I grew up in a close-knit church community. That aspect of my life is very much present in the Butler family's story. It is, perhaps, most vividly seen when Viola attends a prayer service at her childhood church. She alludes to the kindness and warmth she felt growing up as part of that congregation, which mirrors my own affection for the church community that was such a part of my early life.

There is also the complicated tie to home and small-town life. Growing up, I was always eager to get out into the wider world. But there is also a lot I miss about my hometown. Family and community, of course, but also the beauty of the land and every season of Michigan weather (yes, even winter). I believe that emotional draw and need for distance is reflected in the different ways members of the Butler family reject or cling to different aspects of home.

You mention in the introduction to your book that you grew up in a devoutly Christian home. Which sibling's views on religion most closely mirror your own?

I hadn't considered this before, but I think there are shades of my views reflected in more than one of the siblings. As a preacher's kid, in some ways, it feels like belief is in my DNA, much like with Joe, who inherited the church and his father's ministry. I can't imagine life without it. But I've had my doubts as well, which calls to mind Althea's ambivalence. That ambivalence gets me to Lillian. Though I remain a Christian, the questions I've asked have made me more open to other religious practices and systems of belief, which is in line with Lillian's more expansive view of faith.

Your portrayal of Viola is incredibly powerful. What do you hope for readers to take away from her struggle with bulimia?

In a number of ways, the novel examines the varied hungers that drive us, whether for good or for ill. With Viola, of course, it manifests through the ravages of a literal eating disorder. Althea, too, experiences a sense of boundless emptiness that in her case becomes apparent through the crimes she commits against her community and her treatment of those she loves. In Lillian's case, death and grief are important factors. Taken together, these are women who have endured losses and betrayals, and each member of the family is grasping at whatever bits of comfort they can find, making for dysfunctional choices. In the end, whether it is from Viola's story or the travails of the other characters, what I hope readers come away with is an understanding that healing is possible, even if imperfect.

Althea's fellow inmate Mercedes is such a rich character. What is her role in the story?

Mercedes was one of those characters who came to me fully formed. She immediately asserted herself as a leader among fellow detainees. But while she tends to be unequivocal in her statements and unwavering in her friendship with Althea, she's less sure about herself than she seems. What I think is most intriguing about Mercedes is how she navigates that line between transgressor and savior. It will be interesting to see whether readers think she's truly achieved redemption.

One can't help but feel sorry for Joe despite his mistreatment of his sister. What is it about Joe that forces the reader to look beyond his actions?

The goal is always to tell the story in such a way that readers will see characters fully. That was, admittedly, something of a challenge with Joe because, unlike with Althea, Viola and Lillian, the reader is never in his point of view. But I think he appears in ways that give readers an opportunity to get to know him as both a boy and a man and, through that, hopefully they're able to understand him. So even if readers do not like Joe and his actions--and there is a lot to dislike--they at least have a sense of what drives him, which will weigh heavily on how he is judged.

The character of the elderly grandmother, Nai Nai, is drawn with great affection. How did Nai Nai find her way into this story?

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a woman by the name of Cleo. She was 87 or so at the time, and she was still incredibly sharp and the embodiment of joy. Cleo was a white woman from a moneyed, old-South family and had a life very different from mine in terms of regional ties and what she'd experienced of racial privilege, particularly given the era in which she'd come of age. We may as well have been from different countries. And yet, we connected. Though I can't remember exactly when or how Nai Nai came to me as a character, I do believe she was born from that unlikely friendship.

What sort of career or job did you dream of as a child?

I've had an interest in people and the world outside my little corner of the planet ever since I was a kid, watching the evening news with my father. So I always saw myself doing some form of journalism, which was what I pursued out of college. But I was also a kid who loved reading and writing stories. I had this dream of becoming a novelist that I indulged by working on short stories and one not-that-bad-but-could-use-some-work novel. Several years ago, I made the space to sit down and get serious about that novelist dream, and I started The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. I count myself incredibly fortunate to be able to pursue these two different forms of storytelling. They are exactly the things I have always wanted to do.

How does your work as a journalist impact your creative writing?

I think the biggest impact is on how I work. I view writing as a job, so I tend to approach creative projects in that way as well, which means I'm quite regimented when it comes to scheduling and prioritizing writing over other things--always mindful of deadlines. In addition to keeping a schedule, I am also conditioned to be pretty good about taking edits and suggestions for revisions--assuming those requested changes make sense, of course.

What is your one piece of advice for all those aspiring writers out there?

Read. A lot. Especially at the level to which you aspire to write. It will go a long way toward helping you learn the craft and find your voice. --Shahina Piyarali

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