By Julee Balko
Paperback, 276 pages. © July 20, 2021
Serena’s mother is dead. Her husband, dad, sister, aunt, everyone expects her to react in a certain way to this transition, but her difficult relationship with her mother complicates Serena’s grief, making it difficult to express or share with her loved ones. When her father pulls away and her marriage begins to fall apart, too, Serena decides she doesn’t need to voice her grief to them. Instead, she turns all her devotion onto her small daughter. But emotions packed too tightly with no release have a way of coming out, whether you choose the method or not. When yet another tragedy strikes her family and a mystery from her childhood is uncovered, Serena has to choose between what to let go, and what to keep.
Many of the issues in this book are dark, sad, challenging. Even so, I didn’t find the book overall to be a depressing read. I found it fascinating. Each chapter delved a little deeper into Serena’s psyche and her past, as well as the others in her life. I kept waiting for the revelation that would clarify the rocks beneath Serena’s relationship with her mother, as well as why she felt she could not share her load with those who loved her. When the truth was revealed, all the pieces fell neatly (well, okay, messily) into place, and it became clear why each character did what they did. Once I knew that, I could easily see how that must have twisted all their interrelationships so.
Balko does a masterful job at embedding the festering seed of this family drama, all the while entwining all the characters’ internal turmoil in such a way that they affect one another in an alchemical way. The tension kept me reading, wanting to see whether or when Serena would self-destruct or, if not, what could possibly save her. I loved that I got to see the tangle of emotions through the perspectives of each involved character, which helped me see the overall Gordian knot of miscommunication, exclusion, and lost connections that underlay the whole mess.
Though there was a boatload of dysfunction in this family, there was a ray of light near the story’s end. When the mysterious seed of it all came to light, I found myself riding Serena’s crashing waves of emotion through all the stages – anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. With that last stage, Serena makes deep choices about her life, and the reader is left with a hopeful ending.
This is an emotional rollercoaster of a book. I did find that I had to put it down a time or two in order to digest the turmoil and not overwhelm myself. But it was never hard to pick it up again. I wanted to know whether Serena made it through the challenge, and what price the characters would each pay for the role they played in this tale.
The Things We Keep is a strong women’s fiction tale that will take you along for an emotional ride through grief, family drama, secrets, and loneliness, and will leave a lasting impression that will linger long after you turn the last page.