ALL THE BEST PEOPLE, BY SONJA YOERG
PUBLICATION: BERKLEY; MAY 2, 2017
About the book:
Vermont, 1972. Carole LaPorte has a satisfying, ordinary life. She cares for her children, balances the books for the family’s auto shop and laughs when her husband slow dances her across the kitchen floor. Her tragic childhood might have happened to someone else.
But now her mind is playing tricks on her. The accounts won’t reconcile and the murmuring she hears isn’t the television. She ought to seek help, but she’s terrified of being locked away in a mental hospital like her mother, Solange. So Carole hides her symptoms, withdraws from her family and unwittingly sets her eleven-year-old daughter Alison on a desperate search for meaning and power: in Tarot cards, in omens from a nearby river and in a mysterious blue glass box belonging to her grandmother.
An exploration of the power of courage and love to overcome a damning legacy, All the Best People celebrates the search for identity and grace in the most ordinary lives.
I’m not sure where to begin with Sonja Yoerg’s amazing upcoming novel, All the Best People. Based in the early 70’s, this is the story of a woman named Carole who lives with her husband Walt and their three children. They have teenage twin boys Warren and Lester, and Lester is special needs. Alison, their daughter, is getting ready to start 6th grade and at an age where she desperately needs and wants her mother’s attention. The product of a tumultuous upbringing, Carole is starting to hear voices and gets confused easily but doesn’t want to admit it to anyone or ask for help, for fear she is becoming like her mother, Solange, who has been institutionalized for over thirty years. All the Best People explores Carole’s growing illness, Solange’s past, struggles with Carole’s sister Janine, and Alison’s yearning for her mother and grandmother as she begins middle school.
This novel has such an incredible cast of characters, all of whom are very different, yet tied together in various ways. Carole’s parents were happy and in love when Carole was a young child until Solange became pregnant with Janine. After Janine’s birth, their father commits Solange to a local mental hospital, Underhill. Further changes arrive when their father enlists in the military and goes off to war, leaving the girls with an aunt and uncle, and then placed with another aunt until Carole is 18. Carole’s husband Walt is a kind, caring, and mostly happy man that owns his own car repair business and employs their two sons. Alison is a happy, creative young girl who is experiencing all of the highs and lows of being 11 – including friends, conflicts, changing needs and the desire for attention and admiration. Janine is widowed, having previously being married to Walt’s twin, Mitch. Working as the school secretary, she has set her sights on Mr. Bayliss (Alison’s teacher) as an appropriate choice for a future husband. And of course, there is Solange, Carole and Janine’s mother. Solange’s life is revealed through flashbacks. She grew up on the lake living on a houseboat, which most people in the area referred to as “pirate people,” who supposedly had bad blood. Solange married a successful attorney which propelled her into an upper class in society, although the constantly yearned for her family and her roots.
There are so many different sub-plots in this novel, but the prominent issue is Carole’s sudden struggle with mental illness and her attempts at hiding it. Then, as is often seen within families, Walt and the children find themselves rationalizing and making excuses for her behavior, unwilling to admit that something is wrong. Except for Alison who repeatedly sees warning signs that something is wrong with her mother, but whenever she tries to discuss it and excuse os made or it’s swept under the rug.
Another strong theme has to do with societal class and genetics, a.k.a. coming from the wrong side of the tracks and guaranteed to cause societal problems. Long before Solange herself is committed, her husband takes her to a presentation and “tour” at Underhill where Solange learns about the Vermont Eugenics Project, led by professor Henry F. Perkins. In a nutshell, this was a study and movement starting in the 1920’s that sought to alleviate the weaker or troubling members of society, believing that mental illness, poverty, or disruptive behavior were genetic. I have heard of various instances of medical sterilization but was unfamiliar with this project until reading this novel. There are several resources out there shedding light on this “project” but the above link gives a basic overview of the ridiculous thoughts and actions of these people.
The author also raises the famous nature vs. nurture debate, posing the question if we are destined to become like those we are related to, or if being raised in a different environment can prevent history from repeating itself. Although Solange never recognizes or recalls Janine, she recognizes Carole, as well as, Alison which is surprising because Alison has visited her so rarely. They both have red hair and feel a connection towards Tarot cards and spells. Carole was loved by both parents, yet ends up developing a mental illness. Janine was not loved by the adults in her life, with the exception of her sister, and Janine’s life has been problematic.
I was fascinated with All the Best People from beginning to end, although it is full of difficult and uncomfortable moments. Coming from a family that has quite the history of mental illness, this was particularly uncomfortable for me, prompting me to stress out a few times thinking, “oh my God, am I going to end up like my mother, grandmother, etc.” However, Sonja Yoerg has created a powerful and important story that will make you even more grateful for the loved ones that you have and know that you can count on. The story, Carole, and Alison will stay with me long after today and I encourage everyone to read this amazing novel.
*Thanks to NetGalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.