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In the genre of grown-up chick lit, several female authors are starting to be compared to Jodi Picoult the best-selling author of so many heart-wrenching dilemma stories. If not actually compared then a testimony from the same author usually grants the book in question a serious amount of readers taking notice. I admit to doing it myself and so when I came across 'Don't Let Me Go' by Catherine Ryan Hyde, then I had two reasons for reading it. The second reason was the film 'Pay it Forward' which was adapted from the book of the same name. I have read other books by this author and know her writing to be well worth reading. The genre is a tough one to place this book, it's akin to chick-lit but much darker and the theme is not a light one. I think you need to decide for yourself.
Grace is a ten-year-old girl with a problem that's going to take some solving. She lives in an apartment in a block of houses based in a downtown area of LA. Her mother, Eileen is fighting several addictions to both drink and drugs, but it's the drug problem that she's about to lose again and Grace knows that although her mom loves her, she loves the drugs too much to battle this latest fall from the wagon. Eileen has a sponsor, Yolanda, whose role is making sure that Eileen stays with the drugs programme, but she is also there to be a help with Grace and this time it's almost certain that she will phone 'the county' a slang term for the social workers.
Billy is an ex-dancer, a man with a troubled past who has agoraphobia, a condition that means he's afraid to go outside his apartment. Living in the same block of apartments as Grace he overhears a conversation between some of his neighbors, Rayleen (a pretty young African-American woman) and Mrs. Hinman (an elderly woman living on her own). They are discussing Grace's problem and Rayleen is anxious that Grace stays out of care, she appears to know a lot about the bad side of the system. Billy has only recently met the loud but cheerful girl they are talking about, Grace is a girl who's hard to ignore and Billy wants to help her, but how can he when he can hardly help himself?
This is the problem facing Grace and by chance she's managed to get some of the residents on her side. If she can only manage to keep the 'county' off her mother's back until she gets clean again, then there's a hope she won't have to go into care. Bill and Rayleen become acquainted though Grace's dilemma and some of the other residents start to take an interest in the girl's plight.
If they can all pull together and walk Grace to school, then have her until a respectable bedtime she might manage her problem. It all sounds very good on paper but the residents have to struggle with their own problems, work, illness and poverty. Even if they could manage a short while what would happen to Grace in the long term? By looking after her as a group then Grace's mom has nothing to strive for. She has to want a reason for giving up the drugs and staying clean.
Behind the Plan.
I think many of us are familiar with such books and although the author is writing about a modern problem the characters and the plan they come up with is a welcome new idea by writer Catherine Ryan Hyde. So many of these dilemma's are almost too good to be true, the altruistic people who want to help but have to sort themselves out first has been done before but it's still an interesting plot with plenty of mileage to readers who enjoy this style of book.
I thought that placing the character of Billy firmly in the lead role of helper was a good one. Although obviously he has the most to lose and the hardest fight to overcome his agoraphobia I liked the fact that as a dancer he helps Grace by teaching her to tap dance. It may have elements of The 'Karate Kid' and similar stories about it, but Grace is fighting for her life, not just a chance to be popular.
Rayleen also plays a large part as the unpaid babysitter who agrees to look after Grace but she has to work and her hours are unsociable. She has to enlist more help and by doing so the whole building starts to get involved in the plan. Still, so far the plot sounds interesting but not unique so what sets this apart from other heart-tuggers? These people are on the fringes of society so they know they are dealing with a short-term solution only. One character calls it 'enabling' and Grace picks this up quickly. What use is it to help Grace and allow her mom to keep taking drugs? Sooner than later the problem will re-emerge.
Naturally this is where the characters come into their own. One will walk Grace to school, another will help with clothing her and others like Billy and Rayleen will do the unpaid fostering. They will face bigotry and suspicion and Grace doesn't make it easy when she misses her mom. She's quite a character and although you feel sorry for her she's not the type of child you'd immediately love.
Billy is interesting and at one point he will reveal a little of his past, though you will want to know more. Having suffered a similar illness for years I felt compassion for the character and every step he took was cheered on by me. I didn't class him as a do-gooder, who would quite frankly annoy me; there are enough books with people like this putting their foot into a set-up written for the sole purpose of selling books. Yes, his character is heart-warming but he's real and his illness makes him grumpy at times. Around the age of thirty to forty, we might expect him to find love with another neighbor, but will this happen?
Rayleen is another person we want to know about. What makes her so set against the authorities and was she in care at one time? Will the story answer that for us? Will she fall for Billy or the handsome Jesse who turns up later in the story?
Then there are the other residents who pay some part in the plan but not necessarily by choice. Some fall into it and some need persuasion. There are too many to name individually and it would spoil the story.
What about Eileen, Grace's mom? Does the story take her own struggles into account or is this all about Grace? I think I have given enough of the plot away and if you need more than perhaps I have got you interested.
You can probably tell that I was comparing the book to others I have read and wonder if it lived up to it's hype? Besides my natural inclination to dislike books that play on themes to draw in readers I did find the book an enjoyable read and the characters were fresh enough not to bore or annoy me. I don't like authors who set up plots to bring about miracles for the characters. Life isn't like that and I don't want my heartstrings pulled for the sake of it. That doesn't mean I won't rate a book where the author tries to make a bad situation into a better one. I just prefer a dose of realism and an ending that I can believe in.
I remember 'Pay it Forward' as a book I loved but a second-rate film that tended towards every cliché going to get the tissues out. This book could have gone the same way but fortunately I can say it didn't do that. I really enjoyed it and when things went well it was natural. I can't say what I thought of the ending as this would be a major spoiler but it was certainly not completely expected. Did the right characters overcome all their problems or sink back into obscurity? I think I'll let you find that out for yourself.
I'm also going to rate this a little differently to my usual system. It gets a four out of five from me for a good read and a plausible plotline. I also think it worth a four for the characters and the probability of this being made into a film. But for fans of a satisfying read that will keep them reading then it gets a five. The author isn't quite in the same class as Jodi Picoult but her intentions are similar.
The book is easy on the eyes with medium-sized print and at 405 pages it's a one to three days read. I've found lately that a well spaced out narrative is one I can read more easily.
My book was another library find and published in 2011. It's available on Amazon for about £1.50
Thanks for reading.
I have just finished reading Don't Let Me Go by Catherine Ryan Hyde and feel quite emotionally drained because of this wonderful book. It is thought-provoking and poignant and makes subtle observations about the state of twenty first century living. It's also most uplifting and to me felt like a testament to the power of human kindness.
In Don't Let Me Go we meet Grace who is a small girl with big problems. She lives with her mother in a small apartment block in LA but her main problem is that her mother is a drug addict and if she does not clean up her act very soon, Grace could very likely be taken away by the 'woman from the county'. Her mother does not seem able to take Grace to school or pick her up, feed her meals or generally take an interest in the things that she does. In fact all she seems to do is sleep! Grace does not have any family or friends to turn to, but there are always those quiet and somewhat strange people who all have apartments in the same block...
Billy Shine lives in the same apartment block as Grace but he hasn't stepped outside his front door for the past twelve years. He would be quite happy to continue living like this but there's this young girl from the apartment downstairs who won't leave him alone. Then there's Rayleen across the way who seems to have taken Grace under her wing. She can take her to school each day and another neighbour, Felipe, will bring her home but they both have to work. Is there any possibility that Billy will look after Grace for a few hours at the end of each school day?
Grace and Billy tentatively get to know and trust each other, especially when he starts teaching her to dance. Grace's unofficial network seems to be working: she is being cared for each day whilst her mother seems to relinquish all responsibility. It should be perfect but, as Mr Lefferty, another neighbour, points out, they are all enabling Grace's mother to continue feeding her habit and opting out as a mother. The only thing that is likely to make her reform is if she feels in danger of losing the most precious thing that she has - Grace! And so a high risk plan is hatched which is it succeeds will truly reunite Grace and her mother, but could have drastic consequences if it fails.
This wonderful story really hooked me emotionally and I felt really moved by Grace's story and the way that she somehow united a lot of lonely lost people all afraid and living solitary lives. It was wonderful the way that they all worked together to help grace and through doing so, resolved many of their own problems along the way. I thought that all of the characters were developed beautifully and I found myself caring for each and every one of them especially when they all were prepared to give so much to try to help one vulnerable little girl. I loved the way that they seemed to grow as a family unit and ending up not only supporting Grace, but each other as well.
Don't Let Me Go is not action packed by any means and in fact virtually all of the story takes place within the small apartment block with only a few ventures out towards school or Eileen's (Grace's mother's) support group. In many ways, the story is very slow but it unfolds quite delightfully, making the reader really feel a part of what is happening. I loved seeing how this group of highly unlikely misfits came together and attempted to overcome their own shortcomings for the sake of Grace and I just wanted to keep on reading to find out how things would turn out for them all in the end. For me, it was a wonderful read from start to finish.
This was the first book that I have read by Catherine Ryan Hyde and it definitely will not be the last if her other books are even half as good as Don't Let Me Go.
Don't Let Me Go by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Published by Black Swan, September 2011
With thanks to publisher for sending a review copy.
This review has previously appeared under my name at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk