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  • Writer's pictureMandy McHugh

The Second Mother, Jenny Milchman: A Review

I love the process of picking books for my TBR. Whether it's a good blurb, a beloved author, or an amazing cover, it's something of which I never tire. The Second Mother's cover caught my eye; that pink is striking, and the blurb was intriguing. I jumped in and lost myself within pages.

Following the unexpected death of her baby girl, Julie is lost. She's an alcoholic treading water, unable to find her footing, until a chance job posting gives her the opportunity she didn't even know she was looking for: one year of teaching on a secluded island off the coast of Maine. As her husband asks for a divorce, Julie is pleased to accept the position and start over, only to find that things on the island will require more than adjusting to life without wi-fi and cars. This is the kind of sprawling generational book that digs deep into a way of life that you might not expect to still exist. Having grown up near the ADKS, I loved the references to mountain life and being off the beaten path. Tourist season in Lake George keeps the area booming, and life on Mercy wasn't much different in terms of the familial expectations and routines. Milchman created an insightful, stark portrayal of a small fishing community whose town is disintegrating faster than the crumbling banks on which it sits. Without the younger generation to carry on its legacy, Mercy will be lost, and the wealthiest family on the island is hell-bent on keeping things in order. I loved this aspect most of all, and the parts where this novel really succeeded were in Julie's interactions with the lifers. Additionally, the spirit Julie embodies when she accepts her job as teacher carried more symbolism than the giant lighthouse on stage. While she quite literally has a "savior complex" to a degree, Julie is motivated by nothing except doing what's right for the children. She's not trying to save them from their way of life. She doesn't want to expand their technological horizons or show them that there's a big world out there; rather, she wants them to learn the maps of their own hearts. Many of the kids are expected to fulfill their parents' wishes, and while she understands most if not all will do that, she also wants them to find satisfaction and truth for themselves, and I found that aspect of her character to be beautiful. More quietly suspenseful than all-out thriller, The Second Mother is a slow burn of exciting proportions. You won't regret getting lost in Mercy, just be sure you know how to swim. Big thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks for providing an eARC in exchange for review consideration.


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