The Ones We Keep,
by Bobbie Jean Huff
Publication: Sourcebooks Landmark; January 18, 2022
An emotional debut for fans of Elizabeth Strout and Diane Chamberlain, The Ones We Keep follows the splintered lives of four family members in the years following an unthinkable tragedy, and the choices they must make to find their way back to each other.
One family. One tragedy. One incredible decision to change their fate.
A quiet lakeside resort in Vermont seems like the perfect summer getaway for Olivia and Harry Somerville and their three young boys. But in a single moment, their idyllic family retreat becomes a mother’s worst nightmare. Returning from a solo hike one afternoon, Olivia learns from a passing stranger that one of her sons has drowned—but not which one.
In that moment, Olivia makes a panicked decision that will change her family forever.
If she never knows which son has drowned, can Olivia convince herself that none of them have? By shielding herself from reality, can she continue to live in a world where all three boys are still alive?
An emotional and heartfelt meditation on the nature of loss, the gift of recovery, and the bonds of love, The Ones We Keep tells the story of one family as they learn to face their grief and fight for hope.
Wow, I am struggling with the right words to describe my feelings about this book. I easily give this a 5-star rating, but I’m also conflicted about everything from beginning to end. Olivia, her husband Harry, and their three young sons – Brian Andrew, and Rory go to Vermont for vacation in 1971. Harry has tennis games scheduled one day when Olivia wants to go on a hike so they arrange for childcare for the boys. Olivia stops on a rock for lunch, falls asleep, and is very late getting back. When she is almost back to the resort she learns from two teenage girls that a young boy from New Jersey has drowned. Rather than face which of her children drowned while she was gone, Olivia chooses to disappear and create a new life which includes the daily mantra, “I have three sons.”
First of all, kudos to Bobbie Jean Huff for publishing her debut novel at 76!
But secondly, what the hell? Any reader that is a mother will struggle with this novel because of her decision to abandon her family rather than face which one died. She and Harry had a wonderful and healthy relationship, which I feel, would have survived this terrible loss. Brian, the oldest goes on to struggle with alcoholism and relationships his entire life, always feeling the loss of his mother. The youngest, Rory goes on to lead a successful and happy life, perhaps because of his young age and the mother-figure that was placed into his life shortly after Olivia’s disappearance. Olivia, on the other hand, goes on to lead a life of quiet solitude, slowly losing all recall of her previous life, including the birthdates of her children and her own birthday. Therefore, for the majority of this novel, I kept asking myself, “how and why is this woman doing this?”
My rating of this novel is not based on Olivia herself, but the writing. Despite being one of the saddest things I have read in my lifetime, I have nothing but awe and respect for Huff’s writing style, imagery, and character development. This book reads as if one of the greatest literary minds of our time has written it. Be prepared to feel the pain of every character and recognize the sounds, sights, and smells that are frequently mentioned. There is absolutely nothing negative that I can come up with about the writing at all.
Now, let me explain that this novel also frustrated the living hell out of me. Besides struggling with Olivia’s original decision to flee when she learned that one of her sons had drowned, the ending was just about my undoing. So much suspense was built and then the way it abruptly ended had me spewing so many four-letter words I felt I needed to go to church and beg for forgiveness. I cannot stand ambiguous endings like this one because I crave drama and a concrete resolution. Nevertheless, I can’t recall a book that conjured so many different emotions and made me stop and think so many times, wondering what I would do differently, or exactly as she did.
This novel is beyond amazing. Was I left feeling happy and uplifted? Good Lord, no! But I feel lucky to have read this author’s incredible work.
*Thanks to NetGalley for providing this ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.