Review: Nell and Lady

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Book by Ashley Farley

Nell and Lady centers around an unconventional family. When Willa’s black housekeeper, May May (with whom she’s best friends) dies suddenly, Willa raises her own daughter, Lady alongside May May’s daughter, Nell, taking her in as her own. It’s the 70s, and Willa ignores the whispers from neighbors of a white woman taking in a black child.

Willa raises the two little girls as sisters, and they become best friends, until the evening of Lady’s 16th birthday when an event drives them apart.

The story of why unfolds, both through past and present narratives, and by a handful of narrators. In present day, Nell and Lady are in their 50s with children of their own, and neither has spoken since Nell permanently separated from the family after her college graduation. It’s when they’re forced back together by Willa’s worsening cancer that we’re told the cause of their fractured relationship.

This book has great potential. It started off strong — the writing thoughtfully done without being too languid. As we see both women now disenchanted with life as they’ve aged, Lady a divorced alcoholic living with, and taking care of, her mother, and Nell an overworked nurse in the middle of a divorce from her cheating husband, we feel for the them. Each is also the mother of a high-school senior.

While I was initially invested in these characters and where their story would take me, about half-way through the book, the writing got both rushed and forced. The plot was poorly paced, and the climax fell flat. spoiler It’s revealed that the cause of Nell and Lady’s broken relationship is Nell’s sexual assault at Lady’s birthday party — Lady was both too drunk and too stoned to realize what was happening — and it felt awfully contrived. And, most importantly, it was written in a way that didn’t seem to add up to a fractured family relationship.

The author seemed to realize that too, as she spent the rest of the book explaining how an assault of one sister not preventable by another could break a family for decades. I felt the author trying to make it work. I felt her addressing readers’ raised eyebrows and inventing (and inflating) reasons to make the story make sense. Nothing about what came after read naturally.

This disconnection between cause and effect tripped up the rest of the book. Characters stumbled through the story. Backstories were squeezed in areas they didn’t fit, and rushed to try and add dimension too late.

Nell and Lady’s children — Booker and Regan, respectively — were given their own chapters to narrate. Unfortunately, these narrators neither added anything relevant or compelling to the story, nor were they believable (written instead like exposition than teens grappling with their mothers’ history). I truly struggled with the language the author used for the teens, cringing in those moments they came off like a psychologist’s mold of a teen, and worse still, when they spoke like psychologists treating their parents as patients.

Another pitfall is when readers are randomly taken to heaven in one scene, where Willa and May May have a conversation before Willa decides to keep living. It’s such a stark departure that again, it felt forced rather than a natural part of the story. This later happens after Regan is (unnecessarily) in an accident that sends her to the hospital and into brain surgery (what?!), and comes back hinting that she also spoke with May May in heaven.

As it stands, this book had a lot of potential and lost its footing along the way. I would’ve loved to focus more on the emotional relationship between sisters (especially interracial sisters), and really sit with the impact that could have on who they grow into. The “big event” needed reworking to be enough to completely shatter a family. The kids as narrators should have been cut. The forays into heaven were an unnecessary tool for character development that good dialogue and background could’ve handled. The resolution was rushed, stiff, and cheesy.

I wanted to love this book. I really did. And the first half made me, at the very least, like it. But ultimately, it needed a really great edit to get close to being a great book.

Rating: 3/5 (first half) 2/5 (second half)