Gayle Davies Jandrey has crafted--from the experience of her 28-year career as a schoolteacher--a compact, compelling debut novel that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. Best of all, it's blissfully free of the clichés that too often mar mainstream feminist fluff.
Faced with abuse, marginalization and other challenges that test their collective souls, a group of women and girls living in a motor court on the Miracle Mile in Tucson--Audrey, Sam, Eden, Chablee, Leslee and Dee--find in each other friendships that are literally life-saving.
Young Samantha, the book's heart and soul, is 12, precisely the divide between childhood and adulthood. She's confused: She looks at her flat chest with resentment but remains bewildered when she sees her older sister, Audrey, lining her lips in red and making out with boys. Primarily, she's confused about why her mother took her and Audrey away from their comfortable home in California, and most importantly, why they left their father behind. There are cockroaches all over their new home. They buy their sheets at the thrift store.
It is when we meet Leslee, Sam's mother, that we understand why she had to leave her husband, Frank. Cocaine, alcohol and a mean streak infected the man she once loved. Desperate and afraid, she packed the girls into the car and moved to Tucson. We learn that she didn't finish college because Frank wanted her to be a homemaker, so she can only find work as a telemarketer, which barely makes ends meet. She's frightened, but she puts on a strong face for her daughters, who partly resent her for upending their lives. She finds a friend in Eden, an exotic dancer living in the complex.
Sam, too, finds a friend: a middle-aged woman named Dee. Very obese, and devoted equally to Christ and her dog, LeRoy, Dee is easy to ridicule, a practice frequently taken up by Audrey. But Samantha quickly learns that Dee is far more complex than she appears, and not always in a good way: At times, she appears to forget the day or the time, or she will ramble in child-speak. Sometimes, she'll nibble at cottage cheese; at other moments, Sam will arrive to empty containers of ice cream and pepperoni-pizza crusts. And sometimes, Dee will completely forget how to play the card games she taught her young friend. When Dee finally speaks, we learn that there are a number of voices inside her head, including that of Little Girl, the child victim of extreme physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of her aunt and uncle. Perpetually tortured by a teenage pregnancy gone wrong, she sorts out her own difficult past as she helps Sam navigate her present.
Chablee, Eden's daughter, is in a desperate hurry to grow up. Even though she's in the same grade as Sam, she's far more obsessed with her looks, her popularity and, most of all, boys, kissing and sex. While she's brimming with self-esteem on the outside, she's a tangle of nerves on the inside. Her father's in prison, but Chablee, ashamed, tells others he's dead. She lies to make her past cloudy to others, and to herself. Eden actually finds comfort in her work as an exotic dancer and ends up being the most confident among the group--a trait she needs when it comes to managing her frenzied daughter.
Davies Jandrey is a master of voice: Chablee is bombastic; Sam is introverted; Dee is manic; and Leslee is just plain tired. All of these women are bound by their innocence and their trauma. Each of them has been abused and feels suspended between guilt, rage and despair. But as their lives begin to intertwine, they find from their shared experiences a collective hope. One by one, they realize that they have an ability help and to be helped. This tenuous bond--trusting anyone, even a fellow woman, is hard for each of them--is only strengthened when a horrific tragedy occurs in their midst.
A Garden of Aloes is, at its core, an outpouring of sympathy and empathy for the poor, maligned women of Tucson and beyond, but it's never cloying and is thankfully free of girl-power clichés and easy fixes to complex problems. The book instead reads like a series of confessionals, as though each woman was brought into a private room, given a camera and asked to unload. Each character is wrought from Davies Jandrey's compassionate, life-long observation of women facing multitudinal horrors. The fearless book that results is at once a suspenseful page-turner and an intimate tear-jerker. A Garden of Aloes is truly a remarkable first effort.