Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. 400 pages. $24 (hardcover)
I have been a fan of Sheri Holman since The Dress Lodger (2000). I have read that book at least three times, have bought it for friends for graduation gifts, and have loaned it to others. Suffice it to say that I love that book.
I have been less impressed with Holman’s recent works, The Mammoth Cheese and Witches on the Road Tonight. Both of these novels are coming-of-age stories, but I don’t feel like I relate to the characters at all. I have been disappointed with the endings of both, but lest you think I am raining on Holman’s parade, let me give a bit more info.
Witches should be an engrossing tale. It is constructed of interweaving narratives, one involving a photographer and a failed playwright during the Great Depression who travel through Appalachia as members of the Works Progress Administration, another involving a woman whose adolescence was shaped by the introduction of an orphan into her family. Connecting these threads is Eddie, a boy during the Depression who grows up to be the father of Wallis, troubled teenager.
Interwoven are mysterious happenings related to Eddie’s mother (who is probably a witch) and Wallis, who comes to believe that she too can manipulate magic. Wallis falls in love (so Holman assures us) with Jasper, a boy who has lost both his parents and plays on Wallis’s affections in order to get closer to her father. Not that he needs any help, since Eddie seems more interested in gaining a son than paying attention to his daughter.
Holman is a master at creating spell-binding sentences. She can slip from third person to omniscient to first person better than any writer I can think of (except maybe Lauren Groff). Seriously, her technique is almost invisible. But even the greatest technique cannot save a story that leads nowhere.
Every detail that Holman includes is in and of itself interesting. But at the end of the novel, I’m left scratching my head figuring out what went wrong. The same thing happened to me at the end of Mammoth Cheese – I didn’t care about the main character enough to feel emotionally involved when Bad Things Happen.
Nevertheless, I would say this is a better novel than Mammoth Cheese. I would recommend to Holman fans and readers of literary fiction.