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Review: Lies in White Dresses, by Sofia Grant
Morrow, 2019. 359 pp. $17

In 1952, two lifelong friends, Francie and Vi, take a train from San Francisco to Reno, where they plan to take advantage of Nevada’s six-week residency law to obtain divorces. They’ve each got grown children, and neither has a frivolous bone in her body, so you sense a story lurking there, especially since both believe that divorce is a shame and a scandal. But there’s more. Their trip has hardly begun when they adopt June, a younger woman with a four-year-old daughter in tow. Turns out June has a vengeful, abusive husband she’s running from, and she’s practically penniless. So Vi and Francie bring her to the hotel where they’re staying.

Reno, Nevada, in 2007 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

It’s a wonderful premise, and it might have propelled an equally satisfying narrative. However, that doesn’t happen. Since I’ve beaten up this kind of book often enough, I’d like to use this example to talk about happy endings and how they get that way. There’s a difference between a happy ending for a character who’s struggled to get there and a happy ending that feels like an arranged marriage. Guess which kind we’re discussing here.

As usual, it doesn’t have to be that way. Lies in White Dresses builds on the wreckage of three marriages, laden with conflict, past and potential, fuel for explosive confrontation. To her credit, Grant doesn’t shy away from ugly scenes. She also gives Vi and Francie a few unpleasant character traits, not least of which are social prejudices they refuse to surrender. So far, so good.

Even better, Vi’s soon-to-be ex-husband is a real doozy, a philandering, controlling egotist who believes money means (and moves) everything. Throw in Francie’s daughter, Alice, born with one leg shorter than the other, which fills Mama with shame, despite herself. I like that complex reaction, which, again, has potential for depth; what’s more, Alice, no fool, resents her mother’s unspoken attitude. But the saddest person is June, who’d apologize to the air for breathing it, if she could. She says she wants to escape her violent husband, but she doesn’t really believe she can. I agree.

The way I’ve described Lies in White Dresses, you might expect real, agonizing conflicts that have exacted a terrible cost. Instead, you get fantasy. Not legitimate fantasy, mind you, in which the protagonist has gone on a quest that tests her, body and soul, or a farce or satire or frothy entertainment in which you know nothing’s real from the start. No; here, you’re shown how people have deeply hurt each other, just as in real life. But there’s no resolution or much attempt at one, only quick-and-easy apologies to calm the roiled waters, which no one dares disturb afterward.

However, something has to take the place of the unsaid and unfelt, in this case two expendable secondary characters, inserted to set up an ending that’s completely far-fetched, yet utterly predictable. One of these secondary characters is the twelve-year-old daughter of the hotel keeper, cute at first but an obnoxious busybody at heart, until she redeems herself by playing the heroine. Even less likely, Grant has the girl absorb wisdom from a whore with a heart of gold. Ironically, this mentor is actually the only honest, appealing character in the novel, having escaped the Lysol bath that’s cleansed everyone else; she freely avows her appetites, whether sexual, monetary, or alimentary.

By now, the narrative has required a tower of scaffolding and construction of faux walls to keep out fickle life. That’s how June can absorb a few months of kindness and develop the self-esteem that’s been beaten out of her for more than twenty years. Or how Alice, the half-loved child, turns out more mature and psychologically whole than her mother. Happens all the time, right?

As a novelist, I understand the urge to protect my characters. We’re all guilty of doing so, and I’m sure that’s hampered me. We love our characters and don’t want to hurt them too badly or have the reader dislike them, because that feels personal, like a slap. You’ve insulted my baby! But overprotective authors hurt their fiction, just as overprotective parents hurt their kids. And if I see antagonists trip over their shoelaces or the good guys cruise into happily-ever-after as though it’s a fast-food joint open 24/7, I get cranky. (In case you didn’t notice.) I’ll accept a happy ending, sure, if it’s earned. But people have to sweat, fight themselves and their conflicts, and if they come out wiser, well, hand them the bunch of roses. Lies in White Dresses doesn’t earn that right, though. Consequently, I wonder how anyone can actually feel good after the feel-good ending. It’s too much like real life, yet also not enough.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this from the public library.