Book Review: Peggy Riley’s Amity & Sorrow

May 1, 2013 5 out of 5, review 0 ★★★★★

Book Review: Peggy Riley’s Amity & SorrowTitle: Amity & Sorrow
Author: Peggy Riley
Genre: Fiction / Literature
My Rating: five-stars
My Copy: ARC courtesy of Little Brown & Co
Add to: Goodreads
Synopsis: A mother and her daughters drive for days without sleep until they crash their car in rural Oklahoma. The mother, Amaranth, is desperate to get away from someone she's convinced will follow them wherever they go--her husband. The girls, Amity and Sorrow, can't imagine what the world holds outside their father's polygamous compound. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of Bradley, a farmer grieving the loss of his wife. At first unwelcoming to these strange, prayerful women, Bradley's abiding tolerance gets the best of him, and they become a new kind of family. An unforgettable story of belief and redemption, AMITY & SORROW is about the influence of community and learning to stand on your own.

Once in a while, there’s a book that comes your way and it just falls into your lap. Amity & Sorrow is a book that came my way by accident. I received notification that I was pre-approved for a few titles from Little Brown and Company and decided to check them out. I devoured Peggy Riley’s book and it’s a powerful debut.

Amaranth and her daughters are on the run and by the fourth day, exhausted due to lack of sleep, Amaranth crashes into a tree. She finds a gas station and pleads for help, but the farmer, Bradley, in charge of the station tells her he can’t. He insists she needs to call her husband for help, but she refuses. Taking shelter under his porch, Amaranth and her daughters find refuge while Bradley begins to open up and live life. Slowly secrets are unearthed and it’s a tragic story to read.

Amity & Sorrow is told in a series of flashbacks alongside the present and readers get a full account of the life Amaranth and her daughters experienced in a fundamentalist cult. It’s a life we can only imagine and it’s a heartbreaking experience. Amaranth is the first wife of fifty and she realizes early on that her husband isn’t exactly who he says he is. She questions his actions, but at the same time is grateful that he saved her. At the time she went along with his rules and regulations, but on the night the temple was set on fire, realizing he wanted them dead, she suddenly has the courage to save her daughters.

The writing is powerful with rich descriptions. For example, Amity experiences the taste of Doritos for the first time, a “dance of salt and chemicals” on the tongue. When Amaranth realizes she’s not the first woman in her husband’s life, “Her Barbies had no wedding gowns — not a one of the eight Barbies who lived with the single Ken in their plastic house, on their cardboard beds, in sin.” I reread that sentence a few times and wow, what a powerful way to describe the moment of the life she’s now living. Riley’s research is extensive and thorough. There’s a scene where Amaranth goes to the temple and there’s clothes strewn about and she thinks for a moment that the rapture really happened only to realize that the clothes are what people left behind. That scene really hit home as to what Zachariah must have preached.

We don’t get a lot of character development outside the three protagonists. Bradley and Dust are floating the background and I would have loved to know more about Dust’s personal background regarding his family. It would have been nice to find out more about Bradley’s relationship with his own wife and perhaps the details as to why she left. Despite the lack of their backgrounds, I came to realize that this is about Amaranth and her daughters. It’s their story about how they came to be and fled. While Bradley wants her to do the right thing, that is contact police, Amaranth can’t because she’s still bound to whatever hold Zachariah has on her. She takes full responsibility for the way her children turn out especially with regards to Sorrow. There’s one scene towards the end that is powerful and moving. No mother wants to leave a child behind, but she realizes she’s done all that she can and she can’t save anyone who doesn’t want to be saved.

If I can take a moment, I’d like to discuss Amity and Sorrow. Sorrow is the eldest daughter out of all the children Zachariah has. There’s much emphasis put on her as the oracle and the one that can foretell the future. Amity is told to just watch and her power lies with her hands and healing people. It’s natural that Amity wants to hold onto Dust because she’s the first to come in contact with him and he’s the first to befriend her as well as Bradley’s father. When Sorrow begins to garner attention from Dust and the old man, Amity is jealous, but she’d devoted to Sorrow. It’s easy to see how Amaranth placed Sorrow in Amity’s hands. I won’t say what Sorrow does, but my heart broke for Amity and even in the end Amity is devoted to her. I don’t know if this because the way she was raised or if it’s just sisterly affection and devotion.

There are few unanswered questions. One primarily is how Dust was able to take Sorrow back to Idaho since it’s made clear early on that both girls do not know where they are from. I also think back to the scene in the library where Dust looks up information when Amity asks for his assistance and therefore I can sort of understand how he may have come up with a location. There’s also the question regarding garments. At one point Riley writes how Bradley has to tear Amaranth’s shift because they are sewn in and yet Zachariah has no problem lifting her skirts for sex.

I debated with the rating and in the end decided on a solid five because of the rich writing and emotional aspect. I was emotionally drained and even as I write this review, I have tears because your heart aches for Amity and what she went through and even more so for Sorrow because she’s a lost cause. You’ll think of every person you know that is lost and succumbs to a cult leader, wishing you could give them what they are looking for and trying to protect them.

Peggy Riley’s debut novel is powerful and at the end you’ll see the world a little different. If you’re not a religious person, this book isn’t filled with a lot of religious undertones and therefore you’ll have no problem reading long. If you’re a sensitive person, I do have to warn you there’s a disconcerting scene involving Sorrow and I won’t say exactly what it is because it would be a major spoiler, but do keep in mind that there are heavy issues involved.

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