Rose Mae Lolley is a young woman who’s learned to keep her bruises secret with long sleeves, and dreams of running away from her abusive father. Ro Grandee is a woman whose husband Thom’s heavy fists have taught her to lie to the ER nurses who mend her broken bones. And Ivy Rose Wheeler is a woman on the run, searching for the mother who abandoned her as a child. In Joshilyn Jackson’s “Backseat Saints,” these three women are the same person—to avoid confusion, I’ll call her Rose. She’s a woman whose life has been laced with violence and disappointment for as long as she can remember. “Backseat Saints” chronicles her journey to happiness.
Rose’s only friend and confidant is her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Fancy, whose antiquated sense of propriety prevents her from prying into Rose’s abusive marriage, but doesn’t keep her from taking Rose from her house for coffee dates or favors. One such favor is a trip to the airport, where Rose is offered a tarot card reading from a gypsy woman who tells her she must kill her husband, otherwise he’ll kill her first. Rose knows this woman is her mother, who has visited her daughter to deliver the prophecy that will save her life, but neither woman acknowledges their relationship. Before they part, Rose steals the woman’s library book, and later uses it to trace her mother back to Berkeley, California.
As one might expect, all doesn’t go as planned, and this is the main problem with “Backseat Saints:” too often, it fails to surprise. Most of the characters lack complexity: the abusive husband who’s easily appeased with good sex and good Southern cooking; the stubborn father-in-law, Joe Grandee, who withholds financial support from Rose and Thom until they agree to give him a grandchild; Parker, fulfilling the role of the one “nice” man in the story, whose loss of his wife several years earlier makes him hesitant to kindle a relationship with Rose. Jackson’s metaphors are often glaring: shortly after Rose decides to leave Thom, she cuts her dark hair, which she has worn in a single braid down her back for the duration of their marriage, into a severe bob. She also ditches the flowery skirts and sweaters she used to wear in favor of clothing Mrs. Fancy supplies from her old closet—skirts, blouses, and mini dresses from the sixties and seventies. (Ahhhh, right, she’s shedding her old self!)
While Jackson does experiment with plot, she often leaves out Rose’s motivation for certain plot-altering decisions. Rose obsessively hunts down her high-school sweetheart, Jim Beverly, because ten years ago he said he’d kill anyone who laid a hand on her. After making a thirty-hour trip to Chicago to find one of his other former girlfriends, Arlene, Rose abruptly ends her search for him. We’re offered only summary of her conversation with Arlene, and the unsurprising news that Jim just wasn’t who she thought he’d turn out to be. Likewise, some contradictory aspects of the book are not explained. Rose relies on her Catholic faith and her belief in the intervention of various saints to help her survive her journey, but she also attempts to murder her husband because a gypsy told her to.
Perhaps it’s Jackson’s rich voice and affinity for place that kept me hooked, because by the end of the story, I found myself rooting for Rose’s happy reunion with her mother, and the murder of Thom, but couldn’t quite place why. (Naomi Huffman)
By Joshilyn Jackson
Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 324 pages