The Precious One is the author’s fourth novel; I read her first three, pre-blogging: Love Walked In, Belong to Me and Falling Together, my favorite because the scenes set in the Philippines, where her father is from, pulsed genuinely. Still, the details of those earlier tales are fuzzy, except for a lingering warmth that these stories of love, friendship, and family touched me. So now I get a chance to examine and share why The Precious One, with the same signature themes, once again emotionally resonates with so much heart.
We connect because the characters feel real and distinct – good, bad, confused, obscure. Some remind us of people we’re lucky to have in our lives, or wish we did; others we hope we’ll never come across, although sadly, we know of them. Structured in chapters alternating between two female voices, one young, one older, we get inside their heads. Others are important too, for they are mixed up in their lives for good and for bad, and they too feel familiar, well-realized. Some you’ll like, love, admire, root for, and smile at their delightful sense of humor; others, only two actually, you’ll dislike, intensely. A collection of characters perceived singularly because the prose and dialogue are sensitive, sharp, and nimble, conveying emotions ranging from good-natured/good-humored/tender to muddled to frightened to sarcastic/mean-spirited, depending on the character.
Allow me, then, to introduce them, and the storyline:
NARRATORS: Taisy Cleary, 35, and Willow Cleary, 16. Yes, they’re sisters, half-sisters, who’ve never really met (only one dreadful Christmas, when Willow was an infant), until now. Taisy you’ll want to hug and have in your corner from the get-go; Willow grows on you. By the time we meet their stony-hearted father, Wilson, you’re already primed to dislike him. Our animosity doesn’t soften much, although some of his grandiose behaviors become explainable although never condonable. He’ll vex you, as unknowable people can. More about Wilson below.
TAISY: lovely, self-deprecating, funny, wistful, brokenhearted, lovesick, dogged, and achingly candid when she’s around the only man she’s truly loved, Ben, someone she hasn’t seen in seventeen years. A ghostwriter and editor, she berates herself for agreeing to spend two weeks at Wilson’s house – she’s been summoned after he’s had a serious heart attack – since he cut off all ties after her parents divorced. She, and we, very soon learn that Wilson isn’t looking to make amends; he has something different in mind.
WILLOW, a “beautiful misfit”: overprotected, melodramatic, “old soul” intelligence, jealous, caustic, lonely, and up until now homeschooled. Wilson’s health crisis has thrust his precious daughter into a “soul-killing place” – a private high school – 21st century life she can’t possibly know how to survive in having been shielded from the outside world. Wilson’s overprotectiveness is obsessive, bordering on abusive: she’s never watched television or movies; been allowed to read anything past the 19th century (she adores literature; the author’s doctorate in English Literature shines through as Middlemarch, especially, is dissected for a class project); own a cellphone; have sleepovers; eat candy, you name it. She’s been brought up to think she’s above all that. Brainwashed to believe untruths about Taisy, she presents as impenetrable: “she spits venom at me [Taisy] with her eyes, but there’s something about her that sort of tugs at my heart.” Willow carries the burden of an irrational sense of responsibility for her father’s well-being and for her gentle, artist mother’s. “If I could not take care of the people in this house, I was a brute,” which is why her fragility, evoked by her wispy name is apt. The reader will see how terribly vulnerable she is.
MARCUS: is not the failure his father purports him to be. He’s a financial trader, wealth Wilson hypocritically mocks despite being a millionaire. Marcus is endearingly devoted to Taisy (he’s “home to me, the safest place I’ve ever been”), so we immediately take a liking to him and accept his “red-hot” anger toward Wilson.
WILSON, a “breathtaking jerk”: Taisy and Marcus can’t bring themselves to call him father. Can you blame them? He’s Taisy’s “hidden, broken part,” but she’s carved a good life down South. Wilson’s request is that she write his memoir, not the full story, the unknown parts, but his “intellectual journey, my scholarship, my teaching. The life story of a mind.” Consistently, annoyingly pompous!
BEN: Willow’s high school romance. Lovable, easygoing, attached to his great Dad, terrific sense of humor, with a laugh that was Taisy’s “own private meteor shower.” You can probably pinpoint the cause of their disrupted bliss. When Taisy learns Ben has returned home to New Jersey, not far from her father’s house, near her childhood home, we see to what delectable lengths she’s willing to go through to try to win him back.
TAISY’S MOM: A “tireless-lawyer-with-a-heart of gold job.” While she doesn’t say that much, she’s prescient about Taisy’s emotions and actions, which is all we need to know about her maternal instincts and unconditional love.
WILLOW’S MOM: Caro is a glassblower for whom “the most amazing things take shape inside her mind, beautiful things that exist nowhere in the world, and then she makes them exist. How many people can you say that about?” Over time, she turns into an ideal sounding board for Taisy, relieved to be staying at the pool house, a separate arrangement she adapts to easily.
TRILLIUM: Taisy’s sparkling, pull-no-punches best friend (an “ineffable iridescent effervescence that I would call Trillium-inosity”). Famous for an international bestselling guidebook of Life RULES! which is the same catchy turquoise color as the novel’s cover. Her “5th life rule”: “Every woman must have one friend for whom a lunch-and-shopping trip is always the solution, no matter what the problem might be.” Taisy’s freelance writing career got started as her ghostwriter, but leave it to Taisy to graciously give all the credit to Trillium: “What made her story special was Trillium herself: the cadence of her throaty voice, her leaping mind, the way she’d throw words out like handfuls of confetti one minute, and select them, one by careful one, the next.”
MR. INSLEY: Willow’s English teacher. Their teacher/student relationship develops over school lunches, then he teaches Willow to drive. He speaks as though he were living in the 19th century (“the obsessions of the bourgeoisie!”), and is impassioned by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites.
BEN’S DAD: A “slightly goofy joy,” whom Taisy tells us she’s “probably touched him more than I’d touched my own father in my entire lifetime”. It fits that he works at glowing botanical gardens.
LUKA BAILEY-SONG: Offered to be Willow’s English partner when no one else wanted to be. “Ridiculously good-looking,” with a poetic name that echoes his kindness, like Ben’s.
When the ever-hopeful Taisy relents to her father’s command, we assume something-is-going-to-happen to their estranged relationship will form the heart of the novel. Those tensions and other darkness do lurk, but it’s Taisy and Willow discovering each other, and Taisy and Ben re-discovering each other, and Willow and Luka’s finding each other that overshadows. While we can’t fix all those who need fixing, right all the wrongs, we’re glad to have met a few of the precious ones who make us feel good.