3 out of 4 stars
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Kalayla, written by Jeannie Nicholas, is a well written, riveting and emotional, character based family drama. It is ultimately about a trio of multi generational women and their intertwined lives. Set with the backdrop of Cambridge, MA, at times over several different decades, it focuses on the specific seasons of the years 1999-2000 and their day to day lives. I found myself swept along the river of their journey, each chapter lending itself to one of their three unique and captivating voices. This is a drama that I enjoyed reading because the author really lent a clear and consistent description of each character from multiple perspectives. I was able to see the world in which they lived, their character qualities and group development, facial expressions, physical characteristics, and body language as the book progressed. The alternating perspective from one chapter to the next, was quite seamless, and I had no difficulty following the story. Overall the writing style was fantastic and immersive.
First we meet Lena the "Old Lady." Having entered into her 7th decade of life, she has seen her share of heartache and loss. She is no stranger to the trials and tribulations of love, marriage, motherhood, loss, and ultimately loneliness. Her determination to amend what she sees as her failed attempt at raising her own four sons by trying to save her new tenants from their own personal trials is endearing and consistent with her personality. She is smart, caring, stubborn, contemplative, and strong willed. I found a few of her past revelations quite startling and unexpected, but equally necessary and understandable for who she ultimately becomes as a woman.
Next we meet Kalayla, at a mere 10 years old, she is street smart and sassy. She's been taking care of her own needs for so long, she doesn't even realize how much she needs Lena. Theirs is a quirky, loving and often times disagreeable relationship that grows out of Lena's determination to see Kalayla kept off the streets and out of mischief, while Kalayla is determined that she doesn't need the help and can hack it on her own, which is a theme that continues through to the end of the story. The scenes where she loses her temper or keeps her cool even though she tells the reader she'd rather not, were relatable. I found myself transported back to my own childhood and the struggles to become my own person. It even had me reevaluating my own role as a mother and how I effect my own children by the decision I make, quite thought provoking!
Finally we meet Maureen, the widowed mother of Kalayla. Her journey has also been filled with difficulties and heartbreak. She is disowned by her close knit upper middle class Irish family for marrying a black man. He eventually dies in a tragic accident and she finds herself quite suddenly left lost and alone, to figure out the emotional care and financial support of herself and her daughter, with no real job skills to offer. Another aspect where I could relate. There were several scenes where my heart was aching for what this strong young woman was experiencing in her own story.
As far as the sensitive and somewhat taboo subjects brought up in the story, racial discrimination, marital infidelity, sexual, emotional and physical spousal abuse, and motherhood trials and tribulation, they are all still very relevant in today's society, even though this story takes place over 20 years ago. I found that the author handled all of these things with grace, care, compassion and accuracy. She presents such a full and rich story line, of each of the women's past experiences, that I could not help but feel a connection to all of them. As a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and part of a oppressed religious minority myself, I found a true connection with all of the women in this book. This story really touched me very deeply, as I have experienced many of the situations mentioned, throughout my 4 decades of life. While I couldn't relate, from personal experience, to some of their difficult circumstances, such as widowhood or losing children to tragedy, the author wrote with such eloquence, that I was able to imagine how it might feel.
There was nothing within these pages that didn't cause me to sit back and consider life and our interconnectedness and how it effects those around us. One thing I didn't like was finding myself thrust into a rather awkward set of abusive and sexually related scenes with Lena and her deceased husband. I did find it a bit startling to learn of her late husband's more exotics sexual proclivities and abuses. I wasn't expecting it. While I could understand the necessity of including this part in the story, to give a better picture of his personality, it just wasn't something I was prepared for being presented.
Overall I am happy to give this book a 3 out of 4 stars. Since some of the topics discussed may be a bit uncomfortable or offensive to readers, I would recommend those with any triggers to the above mentioned topics, not read this book. I definitely would recommend this book to women over the age of 30, especially mothers, but also anyone who enjoys a riveting family drama that sweeps you along a thought provoking journey of self discovery.
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