A. Manette Ansay (Adult Fiction)
There are many ways to describe Ellen Grier: wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, caregiver, teacher. All of these different roles and yet Ellen still feels incomplete…invisible almost. She had been happy in Illinois in their rented house, but after her husband lost his job, she and her family are back in their hometown of Holly’s Field, Wisconsin and living with her in-laws at 512 Vinegar Hill—a harsh, loveless, and cold home filled with secrets. She wants to be happy, but finds herself drowning under a sea of hopelessness and despair. Can Ellen save herself and the ones she loves before Vinegar Hill consumes them all?
Vinegar Hill is an Oprah’s Book Club selection. I’ve read several of her recommendations and often found them to be “hit” or “miss”. This book is clearly a “miss”. On the back cover, a review from Washington Post Book World calls it “Sweet, tender, and chilling.” After reading this and several other critics’ comments printed on the book, I’m wondering if I actually read the same novel that they did. Sweet? Tender? Vinegar Hill is the type of book that would make Edgar Allan Poe pause and say, “Wow! Now THAT’S dark!” This is a depressing, depraved, and disturbing story devoid of purpose, value, or meaning. We’re introduced to several generations of individuals whose intolerance, callousness, cruelty, meanness and spite are clearly hereditary. It’s an endless cycle of verbal and physical abuse with a skosh of religious hallucinations and psychological delusions thrown in for interest. Ellen’s daughter, Amy, “buries” her “dead” dolls in shoeboxes; her husband, James, sees his children as the personification of Halloween with their skeletal hands and sunken ghostly eyes; and her elderly and bitter mother-in-law, Mary-Margaret, has dreams of her deceased twin infants growing back inside of her. THIS is sweet and tender? The Chicago Tribune even called Vinegar Hill “one of the year’s best books.” I’m absolutely speechless. I found the characters unpleasant and unsympathetic, religious judgements are frivolously tossed out as if they were beads at Mardi Gras, intelligence is scorned and vilified, and helplessness is encouraged and celebrated.
When Ellen sought advice from her fellow co-worker, she was told, “No one gets used to anything, they just get numb.” After a while, with the constant derisions and disparagements, I too became numb and found myself eagerly counting down the pages until I could finally close the covers of this book and walk—or actually run—away from Vinegar Hill and all of its inhabitants…never to look back again.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
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