Title: Where the Stars Still Shine
Author: Trish Doller
Length: 336 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼
Edit: After reading If You Find Me, I’m lowering my rating of this book, because it seems very similar to that one–and not necessarily in a good way. (IYFM was published ~six months earlier.) I still stand by the content of the review, however.
Warnings: This review contains minor spoilers; if you would like a spoiler-free review, they are hidden on Goodreads. The review (and the novel) also contain frank discussions of mental illness and sexual and emotional abuse.
Sometimes, the books you happen to stumble across at the library or the bookstore and decide to give a shot are the best surprises of all, aren’t they?
Where the Stars Still Shine is the story of seventeen-year-old Callie, a girl whose mentally ill mother kidnapped her when she was four and who’s been on the run with her ever since. When her mother is pulled over on a routine traffic stop, Callie is reunited with the family she can barely remember and must try to pick up the pieces of her life and reconstruct a new one.
It’s a slightly similar concept to the one in You Are My Only, which I read earlier last year, but the execution was superior in every way.
I really liked many elements of this book; other parts frustrated the hell out of me.
Callie is sometimes a bit of a Mary Sue in that she’s beautiful an all the boys want her. That said, she is a pretty interesting narrator, and one with some obvious mental an emotional hurdles to overcome. Callie was a very compelling character, if only because she had a ton of potential for growth and development.
The characters around her were likable, but unfortunately most of them felt like cardboard cutouts. It didn’t bother me that much while I was reading, but looking back, none of them are particularly memorable. Of all of them, I liked Callie’s dad, Greg, the most. Otherwise, aside from baby Joe, no one really stood out–not Kat, Callie’s cousin and supposed best friend; not Alex, her maybe-maybe not boyfriend (who, again, likable but also a bit of a “Gary Stu” himself); and not Georgia, her stereotypical “ethnic” grandmother.
But Where the Stars Still Shine was mostly about Callie’s struggle; it was Callie’s story, Callie’s journey, and that was what truly compelled me to keep reading, even when I didn’t like Callie–or when I wanted to smack some sense into her.
That brings me to the crux of the novel, the reason I both loved it and wanted to throw it out a window.
As I’ve mentioned in some past reviews, I have a rocky-at-best relationship with my mother. She has some issues, namely with alcohol, and is extremely emotionally manipulative and, yes, abusive. Callie’s mother is much the same. That really hooked me. I honestly crave books where female protagonists have complex, sometimes problematic relationships with their decidedly imperfect mothers.
And boy, Callie’s mother is pretty awful. She’s selfish and irresponsible and not only abducts her four-year-old daughter, but is so paranoid about getting caught that she allows said daughter to live in horrible conditions; to be isolated from other children; to go uneducated and mostly unprovided for, often to go hungry, for thirteen years. Worse, we discover early-on that she allows her daughter to be molested for nearly a year and turns a blind eye. Apparently, she’s got bipolar disorder, and I could never tell if Callie thought her mother’s bipolar disorder was an “excuse” for her mother’s horrible behavior or not.
Let me tell you, as the daughter of an alcoholic woman: It’s not. Mental illness is not an excuse for abusing, or at the very least neglecting, your child or for abducting her and allowing her to live in horrible conditions for thirteen years. It’s not an excuse for being selfish and manipulative. This was also why her mother’s very light legal punishment bothered me so much–mentally ill or not, she deserved to pay some consequences for what she had done to her daughter (and to the Tzorvas family as well).
I understood Callie’s emotional struggles concerning her mom on almost a spiritual level–to a point. Throughout half the book, I really just wanted to scream, “Get this girl some therapy!” I mean, really, I did understand her father (Greg)’s reluctance to force her into anything, but Callie desperately needed some professional help. Her stepmother is right for, early on in the book, pointing out that they have no idea what she’s lived through. And given that she’s prone to repeated nightmares about what she’s survived, she obviously could have benefited from a bit of counselling, at least. I mean, it’s no wonder she was constantly trying to run away and go back to her mom, ready to forgive her mom for everything, missing her mom and feeling like she was “betraying” her by being happy in a safe, loving, permanent household. After all, her mom was an narcissistic, emotionally manipulative bitch and she kept showing up throughout the novel to guilt-trip Callie further. I totally, completely got why Callie still loved her mom (though a little less so why she was willing to forgive her so easily; I guess she’s just a better person than I am–I think I’ll always hold on to some of my anger). But I felt zero sympathy for Callie’s mom herself. Sometimes, you have to make the bed you lie in (especially if you’re on medication for your illness and choose not to take them even though you have a young child).
A few lines in particular really spoke to me, as if I’d said them myself, including these:
I make the mistake of looking back. Tears trickle down her cheeks and I am a monster girl. And the voice that came out of me was banshee shrill. I sounded like my mother.
[A] brand-new fear overtakes me. What if I am just like her? … Am I crazy, too? And if I am, how would I know for sure?
“She’s had years to prepare,” I say, hearing my mother’s voice come out of my mouth again. … I don’t feel any better for having said what I did. If anything, I feel worse, because I do care. … [I] hate that every time I raise my voice, it’s as if I’m channeling my mom.
For me, those fears are real and they eat at me almost daily, and it was absolutely wonderful to see an author put them to paper. My heart ached for Callie in those moments.
Otherwise, I was much more interested with Callie’s relationships and struggles with her family, especially with her father, baby brothers, and grandmother, than her insta-love (sigh) relationship with Alex (which, unfortunately, took up a good deal of the book). It wasn’t exactly forced–they definitely connected on some level, maybe because of their mutual “mommy issues”?–but honestly, I kind of agreed with Greg when he told Callie he didn’t feel good about her being romantically involved at that point in her life.
Overall, though, Callie’s arc was pretty believable, if sometimes frustrating (see, again, my point about her really needing professional help). She was a fairly sympathetic narrator, and though sometimes she came across as a bit bland, she was never quite as selfish or whiny as, say, Janie from The Face on the Milk Carton. But then maybe since she’d suffered real trauma and abuse (and since her manipulative mother was still around trying to disrupt her life) I just felt better about cheering her on than I did a character like Janie.
I liked the rest of the book quite a bit, though. I liked the setting and particularly the tight-knit Greek community Callie found herself a part of (though I wish she, or they–still not sure which–had made a bit more of an effort to be included/include her in said community, because I liked the brief taste of Greek culture Doller offered readers and I would have liked more).
There were some parts I would certainly have changed, some directions I would have gone that Trish Doller didn’t go, if I had written this book. It’s very good for what it is, though, and in the end, I think Callie did grow somewhat, and she did learn to start making good (or at least better) decisions.
Extra props for a really lovely cover.
I would recommend it, if only for some thought-provoking reading that still isn’t too heavy.
[Also on Goodreads.]