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  • Mandy McHugh

Unsettled Ground, Claire Fuller: A Review

I enjoyed Claire Fuller's work Bitter Orange, and when I saw this title was available for request, I was thrilled to be approved. The summary was intriguing and the cover was absolutely stunning. I quickly dove in.

Jeanie and Julius' lives are thrown into turmoil when their mother suddenly dies from a stroke. They've spent their lives together under the same roof, but when funeral planning uncovers more than they bargained for, Jeanie and Julius find themselves in unfamiliar territory; and in order to move forward, they must learn the whole truth about their family. I sat on my review for a few days to work out my thoughts, but I really liked this book. To start, this is a character-driven narrative examining the themes of love, complex family relationships, hope, and rebirth, and for the most part, I would go so far as to say it is primarily focused on the loss of innocence, a coming-of-age that happens unexpectedly because, well, it's not at a typical age. The twins are fifty-one and only known their lives as their mother had lain them out. In her death, however, they are forced to make impossible decisions, and in their struggle, we see genuine growth. Jeanie is a rare character whose arc isn't centered around finding her worth through literacy. So often we see characters solving every problem in their lives by learning to read or write, as if trying harder is the problem. Jeanie is self-aware and understands this puts her at a deficit, but she also doesn't think her conflicts will magically disappear if and when she learns to spell. Her resilience is heartbreaking and inspiring, and I especially loved the moments where she takes control of her own choices. The sibling relationship is complex and rich but also co-dependent to the point of toxicity at times. Their voices did not always read as fifty year olds, and I think that goes a long way toward the loss of innocence theme. Realizing the truth about our families is not relegated to a specific time frame, and this newfound knowledge can be life altering, jarring, and completely transformative. No spoilers, of course, but while there aren't many joyful moments to be found here, I found the love Jeanie and Julius had for each other to be a wonderful examination of sibling bond. There's hope here, even if it's complex and not altogether clear. Overall, Unsettled Ground is a gritty, raw, emotional read that will stick to your bones and leave you questioning what you would do if your entire life wasn't what you were led to believe it was. For fans of tense literary fiction, strained relationships in the vein of Ethan Frome or Jeannette Walls, or anyone looking for a taut family drama. Big thanks to Tin House and NetGalley for providing an eARC in exchange for honest review consideration.

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