“Sometimes life can pull a lot out of you, Althea. Just squeeze you dry. And if you don’t have a way to get back whatever’s good and precious to you, it’s like losing your soul.”
The Butler family is a mess. A hot mess, really. But their mess is a compelling and riveting read in “The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls” by Anissa Gray.
Althea, Lillian and Viola may be sisters but the only thing they have in common is blood. Althea is the oldest and became the matriarch after the death of their mother. Their father, a traveling preacher and never home, assumes the teenager will take care of the family. She struggles, trying so hard to remember how her mother did it. She finds solace and stability in the quiet and steady presence of Proctor. When the two decide to marry, her father kicks her out of the house. Althea takes Viola with her but leaves Lillian and their brother Joe behind. Lillian gets all their father’s good attention but at the cost of some startling abuse that as an adult, causes her to walk throughout their renovated childhood home proclaiming each room “safe” while studiously avoiding the hall closet. Viola relishes the close relationship she has with the strong and charismatic Althea but has her own issues, battling anorexia with varying degrees of success.
Lillian and Viola’s lives are upended when they are called upon to take care of Althea and Proctor’s twin teenage daughters, Kim and Baby Vi. You see, Althea and Proctor are in jail, due mostly because of Althea’s overwhelming desire to achieve. While Althea and Proctor’s crime is never directly spelled-out, we know it involves embezzlement and fraud and that the whistleblower was their own daughter, Kim.
This damaged family must somehow come together to create structure and security for Kim and Baby Vi amidst the misfortune thrust upon them. Lillian frets over every little thing and has a hard time connecting with the girls. Viola arrives with the intention of helping but keeps everyone at an arms distance. Meanwhile, Kim’s rebellious nature is becoming dangerous and Baby Vi retreats more and more inside herself. Meanwhile Althea ruminates on her own life in jail where she alternates between despairing of her actions then trying to justify them.
I read this book in two days – once it gets going it’s hard to put down. I was anxious to see how this family would work it out. Viola and Lillian have to pull themselves together before they even have a chance to do right by Kim and Baby Vi. But it’s Althea epiphany towards the end that cracks open her strict and demanding attitude and changes the course of the family. While each woman has their own “Aha” moment, Althea’s is the one that is necessary for the family to grieve what they lost and move forward.
Gray is a reporter and journalist and it shows in her succinct and sharp writing. She is true to the cadence of each woman and that helps move the plot along smoothly. There are men in this book but Gray gives them secondary character status, which works well. It was refreshing to read a novel that unabashedly centered on women and all that is good, bad and ugly about their lives. Proctor is the most sympathetic, even though he is just as culpable in their crimes as Althea. Joe Butler is not a sympathetic character at all. The other characters rounding out the book are the other women in prison with Althea and the wonderfully written Nai Nai, Lillian’s ex mother-in-law who lives with her. But while the Butler women were at the forefront, “The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls” is really about all women: sisters, aunts, daughters, and mothers and how they support and love each other even in the messiest of times. Althea’s mother says this: “Boys and men are earth and stone… But you girls, us women, we’re water. We can wear away earth and stone, if it comes to it.” Althea takes that one step further: “That river runs through the place where I was easier to define… Wife; mother; daughter; sister; mighty force of nature.”
Thank you for reading!
Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.