Ephron’s novel drops post-doc student and sleep psychologist Vanessa Woodham back to Bonsecours, South Carolina, into the forefront of an often-nauseating tale of a missing girl, a series of sinister dolls, and the apparent double-life of Vanessa’s grandmother, Miss Sorrel, who for years has collected and repaired dolls. Vanessa’s mother, Liz, still pines for her sister, four-year-old Janey, who vanished from the front yard of the family home 40 years ago. Although any hope of finding out what actually happened to Janey has long since faded, the shadow of her absence continues to hang over the house. The only physical reminders are photographs and Janey’s unaltered bedroom, with a single electric Christmas candle perpetually switched on in its front window.
Liz and Miss Sorrel have continued on with their lives, relying on their only true friend, the gossipy busybody Evelyn Dumont, who lives right next door. Over the years, Liz has found herself growing more tolerant of her mother’s quirks, her perfect hair and calibrated judgments of Vanessa, who is now the same age as Janey was when she disappeared. Liz looks at Miss Sorrel, with her powdered face, spots of rouge on each cheek, and lipstick carefully painted on, and wonders whether her mother is starting to look like one of the porcelain dolls she prizes. Liz blames herself for losing Janey; the added beneficiary of her hard-won wisdom is Vanessa, who Liz smothers with affection.
Central to the unfolding drama is Miss Sorrel’s connection of weird and spooky dolls. Once considered art--albeit “folk art”--most of them have carefully sculpted and painted faces, “like a real child.” Representing a bygone age, the now scarce dolls are mostly valued for their eerily realistic features. From Miss Sorrel’s secrets (from which she can run from but can never escape), Ephron pivots to the arrival of “Miss Richards,” who drops off a doll that is badly in need of repair. With its blond curls, half smile and dimpled chin, the doll’s cloudy eyeballs give it a haunted look that Liz thinks is molded into the image of a little lost girl.
Liz feels a frisson of recognition when she sees the mark impressed in the heel: a smooth-edged sorrel leaf with a vein running down its center. Miss Sorrel recognizes it immediately, certain that it is Janey’s doll with its cracked face and cloudy eyes. More than anything, Vanessa wants her mother and grandmother to find some kind of resolution to the mystery of Janey’s disappearance. Embarking on a search for Miss Richards, a woman with “long dark hair and tattoo wings on the small of her back,” Vanessa and Liz are brought into the orbit of a woman called Jenny who is willing to do anything to sustain the past she’s dreamed up for herself. Is Jenny Janey? Liz has not the slightest doubt that Jenny grew up in Mount Royal believing herself to be Jenny Richards.
Guiding us through her Southern gothic sensibility, Ephron’s prose manages to be both modern and minimalist. She gets the emotions just right in terms of how tired and world-weary Liz and Miss Sorrel have become. Beyond the air that hangs heavy with the sweet scent of wisteria, Maggie and Jenny’s true nature will eventually poke itself out. Until now, Jenny has been challenged by the belief that her life has been a fiction her parents made up. Subplots involving DNA, Vanessa’s sleep research, a tragic house fire, and a suspicious burglary add much drama to the proceedings though the reader has mostly figured out the clandestine goings-on from the get-go. To be honest, I expected something a little creepier. The story is advertised as “a novel of suspense,” but much of the story’s impact rests on Ephron’s ability to evoke charm and atmosphere.
Ephron certainly relates her three heroines’ emotional transitions. In a matter of days, Vanessa comes to love the resilience of her mother and her grandmother, two women long ago left to wonder what really happened to Janey. Ephron’s language is lovely, and while her scenes relating Liz’s guilt and anguish over Janey’s disappearance are powerful, Miss Sorrel’s dainty, wide-eyed, and unblinking dolls that are the real highlight, her prized possessions quietly opening a door to a past full of long-held animosities and faded memories.