Book Review: Relative Strangers by Paula Garner

Relative Strangers by Paula Garner
Published by Candlewick Press on April 10th, 2018
Genre: Contemporary
Pages: 368
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
Synopsis: Why is there a gap in Jules’s baby album? A wry and poignant coming-of-age novel about finding the truth in lies, salvaging hope in heartbreak, and making peace with missing pieces.
Eighteen-year-old Jules has always wished for a close-knit family. She never knew her father, and her ex-addict mother has always seemed more interested in artistic endeavors than in bonding with her only daughter. Jules’s life and future look as flat and unchanging as her small Illinois town. Then a simple quest to find a baby picture for the senior yearbook leads to an earth-shattering discovery: for most of the first two years of her life, Jules lived in foster care. Reeling from feelings of betrayal and with only the flimsiest of clues, Jules sets out to learn the truth about her past. What she finds is a wonderful family who loved her as their own and hoped to adopt her — including a now-adult foster brother who is overjoyed to see his sister again. But as her feelings for him spiral into a devastating, catastrophic crush — and the divide between Jules and her mother widens — Jules finds herself on the brink of losing everything.

I don't know what I was expecting from this book. I was expecting to love it, but I know I wasn't expecting to be sobbing a very high percentage of the time it took me to read it. I made a mistake taking the book with me when I knew I was going to wait around for a bit. And I achieved a kinda weird goal: To be reading a book & sobbing publicly. 

Because this book...well it gutted me. In ways her debut, Phantom Limbs didn't. Phantom Limbs made me cry, but Relative Strangers made me bawl like a starving infant pretty much through the entire book. I found myself relating to Jules and I honestly wasn't expecting that. I was expecting to like her, but relate to her? Nah.

But I felt like I was hit with a Mac truck when I realized that I, too have gaps in my family. I mean, I always knew I did, but to feel it slap me in the face like that was startling. I actually have a bit more family than Jules did and I was never in foster care, but like Jules, my father and his side of the family are still a giant mystery to me. Unlike Jules, my mom and I have a great relationship, but I sometimes wonder if it's hard for her to look at me because I look so much like my donor sounds more accurate.

Like Jules' mother, Abby, my own mom had addiction problems and she too stopped when she found out I was on the way. See, a lot of similarities between my mom & I and Jules and Abby.

Jules had some great friends to turn to when things blow up between her and her mom. Eli, her out and proud co-worker who was also a rat owner. I swear, every time the rats came up, I shivered. I don't generally mind rats, but when you're eleven and see a decapitated rat behind your refrigerator, that sticks with you. My heart broke when I learned that his mother had died when he was little. I couldn't imagine losing my mom. 

Jules also had Gab, a fierce friend and who she had gone to many Jewish celebrations with, including Gab's bat mitzvah. They had been friends since they were both six years old. Gab was more of a risk taker than Jules and definitely more than the third member of the trio.

She also had Leila, the aformentioned third member of the trio. Leila was aggravatingly judgy, especially towards Gab, but we do learn something about the complex nature of their friendship that makes it harder to judge.

Both Gab & Leila had a "normal" family and Jules was often jealous of that. I understood that. Even though my mom and I have always been close, I wanted something a bit more normal too.

As much as I loved the complexity of the relationship between Jules and her mom, what really broke me was the Margolis clan. They really loved her and more than anything, they wanted to add her to their family. Tiny Jules called Mrs. Margolis, Mima, close to Mama, but not quite Mama and Mr. Margolis was called Buddy. And Luke, their son, Jules called him Duke. 

Every time I read about how much they had loved Jules, I sobbed. I couldn't help but think about my dad's family. If they had thought about me as much as the Margolises had thought about Jules. If they missed me at all. I felt things, a lot of things the first time Jules met Mima. Ugh, I cannot believe how beautiful this moment was. They had saved home videos of Jules from the year and a half she lived with them and I sobbed through that part too.

Told you I cried a LOT.

They had so many beautiful memories of Jules when she was little and it just broke my heart. While I know I was supposed to be glad Jules's mother had gotten herself together and had gotten Jules back, my heart was shattered beyond recognition at the realization that she had also been loved by the Margolises. And then, all that did was make me wonder some more about my dad's family. I've met some of them as an adult, but the entire time I was reading this book, I wondered if I had written them off too soon because I wanted to remain loyal to my mom.

The thing with Luke was weird. He had grown up in a "normal" family and had always considered Jules a sister. That's why, when things go too far between them, everything is just decimated. Jules blurred the lines between family & something more. Probably because things between her and her mom were always blurry.

Final thoughts: Read this book if you like stories with complex characters, and examples of different types of families.

1 comment

  1. I loved Obisido. I felt the same way it took a little bit to get into.