Title: House Broken
Author: Sonja Yoerg
Length: 325 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
After her mother is badly injured in a drunk-driving accident, Geneva Novak reluctantly take her in while she recovers. Geneva resents her mother’s irresponsible behavior as well as her attitude towards her and tries to sober her up, but Helen is relentless in her pursuit of the numbing powers of alcohol. Her most painful memories have nothing to do with the car wreck, however, but rather with her unhappy marriage and secrets that she’s kept–and drowned in liquor–for decades. Her presence in the Novak household threatens to upend both Geneva’s childhood memories and her entire family in ways that none of them could have ever anticipated.
Note: this review is mostly spoiler-free. I’ve included some spoilers in my Goodreads review.
The subject matter of House Broken–a grown woman dealing with her alcoholic mother–hooked me, but after reading The Darkest Evening of the Year, I was afraid that the dog angle would overwhelm the story. Happily, that was not the case. Behind the adorable pup on the cover lies a heavy, often dark story. It makes for a painful yet addicting read, and though the family “secrets” it reveals are not very mysterious (I figured most of them out within the first hundred and fifty pages or so), they are heartbreaking.
This is very much a character study, and its characters are colorful and well-developed. The MC Geneva, a veterinarian, is sensible and unsentimental, but she is also “watchful”; she has almost a sixth sense, a powerful intuition about when significant things are about to happen. It falls on her to discipline her children and ultimately to care for her estranged alcoholic mother as well. This relationship is the most difficult in Geneva’s life, as you might expect. Her father died when she was eleven, and she’s never gotten the warmth or approval she craved from her mother, even as an adult.
Full disclosure: my mother is also an alcoholic. She can be very controlling and emotionally abusive, but even in the best of times she can be selfish and insensitive, much like Geneva’s mother behaves towards her.
At some point in her life “Geneva finally realized that she was waiting for a mother she never had.” That really strikes a chord with me, because it’s hard to admit–even for me, even knowing that this just is who/what my mother is. It boils down to this: you only have one mother, so you of course want yours to be as close to the ideal (unconditional love and support, kind, understanding, etc.) as possible; you want what you see in your friends’ mothers and your aunts. Yet you’re actually stuck with a very different model, and it makes you feel quite isolated at times. Geneva isn’t keen on taking her mother in, but her husband–who comes from an intensely close-knit family–can’t understand her emotional baggage. This is real talk, too. “But she’s your mother,” he says to her. As if people who have difficult parents don’t know just what society thinks about filial bonds. As if they haven’t striven for a healthy relationship with their parents for their entire lives.
Anyway! Helen, Geneva’s mother, is prickly and self-destructive and refuses to admit that her addiction is a problem. She says and does some reprehensible things. But her POV chapters mostly explore her past, to answer the how-she-got-that-way questions. Without including spoilers, I will say that the very first flashback raises a ton of red flags:
Eustace Riley claimed that it was Helen’s butterscotch pie that did it. But even a Blue Ribbon dessert (two years running) was no match for that figure of hers at sixteen, and they both knew it. […] When her mama let drop that Eustace was thirty-two, she nearly fainted. Twice her age! (28-9)
Age differences in romantic relationships aren’t inherently bad, but as soon as I read that, my skin started crawling (and never really stopped). Despite her inappropriate behavior and the pain she’s caused Geneva for years, I felt horrible for everything that poor Helen had to go through and the fact that no one–beginning with her greedy father, who let a much older man prey on his teenage daughter for his own financial gain–ever protected or defended her.
Ella, the final POV character and Geneva’s daughter, is also sixteen. Like most teenagers, she has a million and a half things going on in her life. Some are melodramatic (her secret crush, her disdain for her mother, her disinterest in school even though she’s good at it) and some are less so, but her voice always sounded pretty genuine and very distinct from Geneva’s and Helen’s to me. Her problems are not, of course, as serious as her mother’s and grandmother’s, but nor are they ever trivialized by the author. I was very much pulling for all three women, though personal experience warned me that Helen might be a lost cause.
I thought that one of the story’s major strengths was the way it explored the nature of “dysfunctional” families. The unspoken conclusion seems to be that all families, perhaps, suffer from a bit of dysfunction. Geneva’s brother Dublin has an autistic son. Her own children are not as well-disciplined and straight-laced as she believes, and she feels a lot of resentment towards her husband, whom she considers too “neutral” and unsupportive. But as she and the reader discover, the family she grew up in, though picture-perfect on the surface, was the most flawed and broken of them all. After uncovering the truth of her family’s past, Geneva seriously empathizes with her mother’s pain, but Sonja Yoerg makes it clear that empathy and understanding are not necessarily the same as healing, especially so many years (and so much emotional damage) later, or even necessarily the same as forgiveness.
There were a good deal of unanswered questions that might have made more sense had certain topics and events been explored in greater detail, but I suppose it was too much to ask since this was really just Geneva’s, Helen’s, and Ella’s stories.
House Broken is a debut novel, but it is beautifully written and boasts a cast of very real, sympathetic characters. There are plenty of seasoned authors that I doubt would handle such delicate subjects as well as Yoerg does here.
Overall, this is a wonderful read (though, again, a pretty weighty and sometimes dark one). As the child of an alcoholic parent, I particularly appreciated the way Yoerg treated that difficult subject, and that she didn’t tie everything in a neat little bow at the end as so many authors are wont to do. If only all “women’s fiction” could live up to this.