In Things We Once Held Dear by Ann Tatlock, Neil Sadler has come back to his home town of Mason, OH, after an almost 30-year absence. He had left somewhat disillusioned after a family tragedy, settled in New York to teach art, married, and had just recently lost his wife. Now he is coming back to spend the summer helping his cousin transform an old family house, which she has come to inherit, into a bed and breakfast. He had held himself apart from much of his large family for many years, and at first he dreads reestablishing relationships, answering questions, accepting condolences for his loss. But as he does, he’s reminded of the love they’ve shared in the past, and slowly his heart begins to settle.
One of those family members who was related by marriage and not by blood was Mary. They had shared a special relationship growing up, and he had even loved her, but he had not told her so. Now she is married with two children and her husband is a policeman who is being investigated after a shooting in which his story and the dead man’s wife’s viewpoint do not agree.
The family tragedy of so many years ago is told in flashbacks. Mary’s father, Cal, had been accused of killing his invalid wife. He maintained his innocence until the end, but everything seemed to point to his guilt. This situation comes to bear on the current family in many ways.
Neil and Mary both start out kind of in a fog about what they should do next in life, but as the story goes on they both experience clarity and discover that “You don’t have to understand something completely to know it’s true.”
At first the story started off kind of slowly for me. There is a natural sympathy for someone who has lost a spouse, but there is a different sympathy for an acquaintance versus a personal friend, so in a sense it is a little risky to start off with a character in grief when we don’t really “know” him or care about him that much at first. And the multitude of relatives and back-and-forth time periods were all a little confusing at first. There was a direction I thought the story might be going that I was relieved to find was not the case, but I can’t expound on that without giving away too much. Mary’s friend, Peg, really bugged me – though later in the book it is said that she is known for her “blunt and irregular remarks,” if I had a friend like that…well, I couldn’t stand to have a friend like that for long.
But for all that, I did enjoy the story and Neil and Mary’s journeys toward clarity and faith. I especially liked Uncle Bernie’s statement that “truth isn’t invented; it’s revealed…The one who knows the truth has to tell us what it is.” That was true both in the case with Cal and spiritually as well.
And another favorite spot was when Neil lamented to Uncle Bernie that God was invisible and it would help if He would “put in an appearance and tell us what the truth is.” Bernie answers:
But, Neil, don’t you know? That’s what God did. That’s exactly what he did. He wrapped himself in skin…to tell us what the truth is…His first coming was only the opening act. He’s been relentless in His pursuit of us ever since. He’s on your heels right now.”
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)