The latest novel, that this pedometer geek read, was an autographed book received through a Shelf Awareness Book Buzz giveaway, thanks to the author. It was Paige Dearth’s When Smiles Fade, her second novel (although there was an excerpt from her debut novel, CBelieve Like a Child, which tells the story of Alessa, one of the more likeable characters of When Smiles Fade, but I digress). This is the extended review.
When Smiles Fade
by Paige Dearth
Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013
How does a reader review a book that is about abuse–verbal, physical, and sexual abuse? Especially an young girl’s abuse at the hands of a father with the tacit approval of the mother? For that is the dilemma that this particular reader has with reviewing this novel. To say it was enjoyable isn’t possible because the story wasn’t always pleasant reading (although there were some moments in the story that were upbeat and positive). Yet, it was difficult to put down, too, as this reader wanted the main character to find a happier life.
Yet, having read about the author’s rationale for writing novels on gritty subjects, particularly child abuse at the hands of adults who take the innocence of children, in more ways than one, then the story is understandable. She frankly admits to having been a victim of child rape and spent her early years yearning for a better life. It is because of this she began writing as a creative outlet as a form of catharsis. Yet, she tells a compelling story in this novel.
Resilient, resourceful, resolute Emma Murphy is the protagonist of this novel. As the book blurb states: “Emma was unloved from the moment she was born. Her earliest memory is being severely beaten by her father, Pepper.”
Pepper blames his older daughter for destroying his dreams of a better life, and he takes out his pent-up rage upon her by beating her for the smallest infractions (like breathing), and he eventually escalates to sexual abuse of Emma. All the while her mother Valerie tacitly approves, blaming Emma for his actions, claiming it is all Emma’s fault.
Emma puts up with the abuse in order to protect her younger sister Gracie from her father, but eventually he starts in on Gracie as well. Emma vows to herself to stop the abuse if possible, and she has friends upon whom she leans. Eventually, Pepper dies, and briefly that stops the abuse; however, new people come into the lives of Emma and Gracie. They become victims once again, at least until the two teens run away, escaping with a friend. Despite their ages, they head to Philadelphia, living on the streets and trying to make a better life for themselves.
Patterns are repeated as both girls become targets of unscrupulous people, yet ever resourceful Emma does find a job and makes a life for Gracie and herself; however, for every positive moment they have, there are equally negative moments for the pair. The same is true for the people she meets (some becomes friends; others become sadistic or evil). Moreover, Emma will do whatever it takes to achieve a normal life for Gracie and her.
There are some wonderful characters in this novel. Mrs. Tisdale, Brianna, Katie, Sydney, Isabelle, and Salvatore are some of the more positive influences in Emma’s and Gracie’s lives. Yet, there are plenty of baddies, too. Obviously, the girls’ parents are two of them, but there are others.
It shouldn’t be sugar-coated; the author has written a story that is gritty and raw. Further, she presents the subject matter in a graphic and matter-of-fact way. The language, too, is graphic with strong language. At times, it is not an easy read, and like Dave Pelzer’s memoir, A Child Called It, it is heartbreaking. The reader roots for Emma and Gracie to find some peace and a life free of pain…that they will have a normal life, one that won’t repeat the patterns learned in their youth. Overall, it is a cautionary tale, and an emotional read with a surprising ending.
A couple of niggling things were bothersome to this reader (which probably wouldn’t be noticed by most people, particularly those without a science or pharmacy background, but as this reader happens to be a pharmacist with a strong background in both biology and chemistry, they stood out) and are as follows:
1) the descriptions of the two sisters as compared to their parents’ descriptions didn’t make genetic sense. Pepper had green eyes and Valerie had blue eyes (both recessive traits), but Gracie has brown eyes. This reader has taken a college course in genetics, and there is nearly 0% chance that parents with those color of eyes would have a brown-eyed child. That Emma has green eyes works, but not Gracie’s brown eyes.
2) although Pepper was being fed food laced with rat poison (a blood thinner), which would/could have killed him, it would have probably caused him to vomit long before his death especially considering his chronic alcohol intake, thus ridding his body of some of the poison. The reason rat poison works has to do with the fact that rats can’t vomit, thus once they ingest the poison, they bleed internally until they die.
3) Valerie’s taking Emma and Gracie to various hospitals to hide the abuse, particularly the repeated broken bones. Despite the lack of complete medical records, the doctors would suspect abuse eventually. Broken bones, though healed, do show up on subsequent x-rays, and the multiple breaks would have been noticed by medical professionals.