I read one of Reynolds’ other books, A Gracious Plenty, a few months ago, and was immediately hooked on her writing style and characters. Fans of the Southern Gothic tradition should definitely give her books a try.
This novel is less on the Gothic side than A Gracious Plenty, focusing instead on a girl coming of age in a dysfunctional home environment. Kenny’s father is in prison, and so she lives with her father’s girlfriend and family. Kenny feels alone, without a home or identity or family of her own. All of this is complicated by her struggles with her sexual identity, a conflict that makes up a large part of the book and feeds into much of the great metaphor and imagery.
Reynolds does very well with struggling, imperfect, and, for lack of a better word, damaged protagonists. Kenny’s voice is clear, and the understatement of the prose makes her problems that much more sad and sympathetic. And yet, there’s a confidence there, as well as love–even though this is a dysfunctional family, it’s plain that they’re a unit and that they care about one another. We want Kenny to find herself somewhere safe, even if it’s not perfect.
Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina has a lot in common with The Sweet In-Between in terms of content, setting, and main character. Other Southern writers also jump to mind, such as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner–O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find might be a good choice, as would Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Another great Southern story with a wonderful sense of place and themes of family dysfunction is Amy Greene’s Bloodroot, about several generations of one family in the mountains of Appalachia. I also thought of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides for readers interested in stories about coming of age while dealing with questions of sexual and gender identity. Middlesex also offers a sort of near-mythic quality that fans of Reynolds’ writing might appreciate. Last, those who don’t mind a touch of the gruesome and disturbing might really like Gillian Flynn’s books, particularly Sharp Objects, which is about a journalist who thought she’d escaped her dysfunctional childhood only to be pulled back when she’s asked to write about a murder in her hometown.