Author: Heather Newton
Release Date: January 2011
Publisher: Harper Collins Paperbacks
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Southern Fiction
Rating: 4.0 out of 5
Publisher summary: Thirty years ago, Martin Owenby came to New York City with dreams of becoming a writer. Now his existence revolves around cheap Scotch and weekend flings with equally damaged men. When he learns that his older brother, Leon, has gone missing, he must return to the Owenby farm in Solace Fork, North Carolina, to assist in the search. But that means facing a past filled with regrets, the family that never understood him, the girl whose heart he broke, and the best friend who has faithfully kept the home fires burning. As the mystery surrounding Leon's disappearance deepens, so too does the weight of decades-long unresolved differences and unspoken feelings—forcing Martin to deal with the hardest lessons about home, duty, and love.
My Thoughts: I've always enjoyed Southern Fiction and wanted to read more, particularly with themes about family, community and physical and emotional connections to people and places. I learned about Heather Newton's debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees having read several bloggers' reviews. This led me to Heather Newton's website as well as the publisher's. Everything I read about Under the Mercy Trees piqued my interest and convinced me to experience it for myself. When I saw it on Crazy Book Tours list there was no question I was joining the list for this book. I was very excited when it arrived and even if I hadn't had a seven day reading limit, I would have sat down and opened Under the Mercy Trees immediately. I wasn't disappointed. Heather Newton's writing is stunningly beautiful and she knows how to precisely use words to captivate her readers. This was a terrific, absorbing book with remarkable characters I still think about weeks later.
Martin Owenby reluctantly returns home to Solace Fork, NC from New York City when he receives a telephone message that his oldest brother, Leon, has disappeared. Martin doesn't go home out of worry or care about Leon, nor out of a sense of obligation. Martin may be a middle-aged man but he's still afraid of disappointing his siblings (two sisters, Ivy and Eustice, and another brother, James) and he doesn't have the emotional strength to tell them who he really is or what he actually thinks. Martin has hidden the truth about himself from his family and his best friends, Hodge and Liza, the latter being Martin's best friend since the second grade and high school girl friend.
Martin is not the only family member with secrets, which are a hallmark of the Owenby family. They were once a matter of survival and now, too much time has gone by: the secrets are woven into the framework of the family. In Newton's engaging debut, the Owenby family reunites in order to discover Leon's whereabouts and whether he is still alive. As the story progresses, some of the characters realize things aren't always as they seem. While Martin, Liza and Bertie (James' wife) learn the value in the truth and try to come to terms with their past in order to move on with their lives, Ivy struggles to figure out how to resolve the most painful aspect of her past and accept what she can't change. The plot of Under the Mercy Trees a little thin in parts is of secondary importance because it's the characters that make this a dynamic, engaging book.
Under the Mercy Trees is divided up into chapters that alternate between four of the characters, namely Martin, Ivy, Bertie and Liza. These characters describe life in Solace Fork today and years ago, when Martin and Liza were children. They tell us about their individual lives, past and present, and they tell us how they knew Leon Owenby and what they thought of him. The author does a remarkable job bringing these four characters to life and, through them, several others. Newton displays an amazing talent for making these characters real, fully-developed three-dimensional people. I fully expected if I was in North Carolina, I would see and recognize Martin, Bertie, Liza or Ivy walking the streets or sitting in a diner. Newton makes it possible for us to identify with the characters as much through their admirable qualities as their flaws.
I felt a variety of emotions throughout Under the Mercy Trees. Martin's sister Eustace, for example, made me angry with her comments about Bertie's trailer and her difficult son, Bobby. She's an unkind, caustic and critical woman who constantly speaks her mind. The more she can wound another, the more satisfied Eustace is. That was nothing, though, when I came upon Eustace's treatment of the schizophrenic Ivy with whom, I was surprised to find, I could relate. In Newton's hands Ivy becomes a sweet, charming, eccentric woman who's had an extremely difficult and painful life. It's nothing short of amazing she hasn't gone completely mad. Eustace made it easy to sympathize with Ivy after learning what happened to her and her son, Sean.
Similarly, I was amazed to discover I sympathized with Martin at times, a gay alcoholic. The more I read of Martin, the more I softened towards him. At times I felt irritated with him, a grown man functioning so poorly in life, putting himself before everyone else, even Liza, who he loves. Martin is intelligent but also terribly lost, confused, angry and disappointed with himself. Newton's compelling descriptions of the difficulties Martin experienced and his struggles with his father, with Leon and with himself, from a young age, makes it easy to feel for him and understand his behavior.
Newton has written a compelling, enchanting character driven novel that deserves all the recognition it's received. It's been chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) as a spring 2011 “Okra Pick” (great southern books “right off the vine”). Congratulations to Heather for this amazing honor she so richly deserves. Under the Mercy Trees is a terrific example of the wonderful genre of Southern Fiction. Heather Newton deserves a place beside other great southern authors such as Kaye Gibbons, Pat Conroy, Richard Ford and Anne Tyler, to name a few. She's so adept at making us feel with and for her characters, you can't help but wonder if their real live counterparts are somewhere wandering the streets of the south. I hope to read more about several of the wonderful characters in Under the Mercy Trees but, even if Martin, Ivy and Bertie have been put to rest by Heather Newton, I eagerly anticipate her future books.
Be sure to visit Heather Newton's website for all sorts of great information!
Thank you to Crazy Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review Under the Mercy Trees and thank you Molly E. for the copy of the book!
Additional reviews of Under the Mercy Trees:
Hey, I Want to Read That
In the Next Room