Our Crooked HeartsOur Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert
My rating: 5/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

this book is a corker.

considering that in the past couple of years, adult-market books about women with powers and YA about witchcraftin’ girls have been surging through the bookworld like b.d. wong’s locusts,

i fully expected this to be one of those typical YA-allegories about girls fed up with being vulnerable in the world and taking empowerment into their own witchy hands; girlbonding and messing with magic as an outlet for the rage and dissatisfaction that permeates adolescent girlhood. and there is some of that:

Marion handed Fee a CD and we lay on the uneven floor of her bedroom to listen, heads close and the music loud enough that we could feel it vibrating through the boards.

That was how it began. Food and music. The rest of it came later: the magic, the things that fueled it. We were angry before Marion came, even if we didn’t know it. At our dads, at our dead moms, at ourselves for being fifteen years old with lives the size of a pinprick, and no idea how to change them. But it was Marion who gave our anger form.

It started with the music. That’s not where it ended

that is not at all where it ended—while many books would be happy to ride that thematic old pony all the way through, here it’s only half of the story, and at the crooked heart at the center of this one is the story of a mother and a daughter and the secrets that separate them.

the novel is split between two alternating POV timelines—one taking place in “the city/back then,” where best friends dana and fee meet older-girl marion and DO INDEED start messing with magic, with unintended tragic consequences. the second is set in “the suburbs/right now” where dana’s teenage daughter ivy finds herself in a “sins of the mother” scenario, experiencing the spooky fallout from dana’s impulsive decision in the wayback.

so, yeah, a mother-daughter story that goes way beyond the ushe dynamic of teenage girls struggling to become their own person away from the shadow of the maternal wing. adult-dana is an odd woman and an aloof mother, with her scars and her secrets, her deep-rooted guilt, and she has caused real damage to ivy. and even though ivy’s discoveries about her mother’s past allow her to finally understand her, understanding doesn’t always lead to forgiveness. dana’s made some bad judgment calls, and committed some capital-b betrayals, and i appreciated how her choices complicated her relationships with ivy, fee, her husband—it’s hard to bounce back from a lot of it, and it’s refreshing that it doesn’t all end up hunky-dory in the right-now-suburbs.

along with the emotional complexity, the writing style is also terrific—the flow, the descriptions; the “kaz brekker cheekbones,” a character “darting toward the fence on Barbie toes,” a building that “looked like the sentient dollhouse of a very bad seed,” and there are also some keen observations, like this astute description of sharon—an adult woman who assisted the witch-trio in the beforetimes:

She was one of those people who wielded her own history like a knife. Spend enough time with career alcoholics and you can spot this type from an avenue block away; threading their conversation with terrible, intimate revelations, designed to make you believe they’re telling you their secrets. Making you think you had to pay them back in kind. Sharon was magically gifted, but I’d bet her true talent was an eye for damage.

i have met some sharons in my day.

and as for the girls, especially ivy—they’re more than characters, they feel like people. they are stubborn and headstrong and brave but they are also as flawed and fragile as all of us, despite their magical abilities.

i did not expect to love it as much as i did. to repeat myself, this book is a corker. imma close this puppy out with a passage i particularly liked and also a fun fact: one time, this author interviewed me for a job i did not get. i bear her no ill will—the position evaporated, so no one got it, but i am tech avail for bookwork, should she—or anyone else—wish to hire me.

anyway, play me out, boss:

I never knew my mother. She died when I was two, and my dad wasn’t the kind to keep a candle burning. When I asked questions, he’d send me to the kitchen drawer where he kept a stack of old photos and a rubber-banded lock of her red hair.

So. A mother can be a photograph.

My best friend lost her mother even earlier. Fee came into the world and the woman who’d carried her stepped out. Death transfigured her into a dark-eyed martyr, their apartment the reliquary where Fee’s father tended to her traces.

A mother can be a saint, then. A ghost. A blessed outline that shows where she’s gone missing.

Sometimes she’s a stranger on a park bench, feeding her child from her fingers, the air between them so tender you could knead it like bread dough. Or a woman on the train, Coke in the sippy cup and yanking the kid’s arm until it cries. I’ve always liked to watch bad mothers.

A mother can be a paring knife, a chisel. She can shape and destroy. I never really thought I would become one.

There are things a daughter should know about the woman who’s raising her. If that woman had the courage. If she could say the words.

Let’s say you lie in bed at night and rehearse the things you’d tell her, if you could. This daughter of yours, infinitely unreachable and just across the hall. This deep into the disaster, what could you still say?

Where would you begin?

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