When the matriarch of the Butler family dies, her oldest child, Althea Marie, age 12, inherits the enormous burden of raising her younger siblings, Viola, Joe and infant Lillian, while their father, an itinerant minister, prioritizes his job over parenting.
In their small western Michigan town of New River Junction, where the Saint Joseph and Portage rivers meet, Althea does her best to meet her charges’ needs. In adulthood, she marries her childhood sweetheart, Proctor Cochrane and they open their dream business, Althea’s Kitchen and Grocery, and start a family. Years later, when their daughters Kim and Baby Viola are teenagers, Althea and Proctor are caught stealing from their community to keep their restaurant financially afloat. For their grave misdeeds, they are convicted of conspiracy to defraud and sent to prison.
At the heart of Anissa Gray’s luminous debut novel, “The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls,” is the story about a family’s implosion, and how each of its members must figure out how to pick up the shards of their former lives, reconnect with one another and reckon with their painful pasts.
The arrest of Althea and Proctor, and the stunning betrayal that led to those arrests, send shockwaves throughout the Butler family. During Althea’s long days in her cell, she has endless hours to contemplate how her near perfect life suddenly derailed. “You do a lot of thinking in jail. Especially when you’re locked in the box that’s your cell … Here in my bunk, that moment presses in on my chest, a weight so heavy I can hardly breathe.”
While despairing over her sister’s years-long sentence, Viola, a therapist, struggles with bulimia as her relationship with her longtime partner, Eve, unravels. Lillian, whose deep-seated guilt manifests in her need to care for her ex-husband’s grandmother, has obsessively renovated the Butlers’ childhood home with the hopes that changing the wall color will erase the memories that haunt her there. And seemingly altruistic Joe, who Althea doted on the most as a child, hides his wicked past behind his enthusiastic church-going. Unfortunately, none of the Butler siblings seem equipped to raise Althea and Proctor’s daughters, rebellious Kim and fragile Baby Viola, who is so withdrawn she seems to have disappeared inside of herself.
There is no redemption story for Althea and Proctor, no lemonade made out of lemons, and that’s part of what makes Gray’s novel such a compelling read. The incarcerated couple spend their days lying awake on their separate bunk beds in separate prisons, the consequences of their duplicitous missteps and poor judgment rippling through the lives of their loved ones in ways not even they could foresee. They hear bits and pieces of the aftermath through Plexiglas from their visitors and in letters, but they have no agency to fix the mess. They are the primary architects of their own downfall, but as Gray artfully demonstrates, it’s their family, innocent bystanders, who suffer from the fallout the most. Nevertheless, Althea and Proctor try to make the best of their circumstances, to find ways to parent and make amends.
Elsewhere in New Junction, grudges and resentments build. Its residents, who had trusted Althea and Proctor with their hard-earned money, ostracize the Butler clan. In “Care and Feeding,” just because a formerly tight knit community can forgive, doesn’t mean it will forget.
This fact is the hardest to swallow for Viola, who is forced to remove the rose-colored glasses with which she once viewed the sister she’d always idolized. When Viola sets out to make a gift for Proctor, she is reminded how haunted she is by the memories of the restaurant that led to their downfall. “I allowed myself to really look at this place. To really see the booth where Althea and I sat together in the days before her arrest.”
Unlike Althea, Proctor, who we only see in his plaintive, affectionate letters to his wife, has a firmer grip on his jarring new reality. His unwavering belief that there will be better days — for him, Althea and their two girls — keeps him in good spirits. In a letter to Althea, he writes: “It’s like me and whatever I have in my sights are both part of this natural order and there’s a rightness to everything. Feeling something like that when I was still so torn up from the sentencing. It was like nature was saying, There’s still beauty and light, man. That’s nature. That’s your true nature.”
Althea, on the other hand, stumbles mightily while attempting to regain her footing. “I used to think I was like a river. A mighty force of nature,” she says of her life before prison. Her sense of invincibility flounders, and she begins to lose herself in her new banal routines. What’s more, she loses hope of ever repairing her relationship with Kim, who needs her now more than ever.
Each of the three Butler sisters narrates their own stories, and Gray handles the switching between their points of view superbly. “Care and Feeding” is a precise study of how each member of a family works through its demons when long-kept secrets are unearthed, and how it must learn to function as a different kind of unit when its two pillars, the glue that held them together, are serving time. As their roles shuffle in myriad ways, they must figure out how to cope with such dire circumstances, especially Althea, who clings to her faith and the memories she holds close. “Show me the way. It’s the closest thing to a prayer somebody like me’ll ever say.”
‘The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls’
By Anissa Gray
Berkley / Penguin
304 pages, $26
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