Review: Little Mercies by Heather Gudenkauf

This is probably the most difficult review I’ve had to write about a book in a while, because I’m very conflicted about what my sentiments are regarding the novel. This was well-written and intimate in terms of the narrative itself showing the thoughts and sentiments of the characters. I applaud Gudenkauf for taking an unflinching look at a series of tough subject matters that came together through the course of the novel, which will become apparent as I talk about the subject matter of this book. Before I do that, I’ll say this: I really liked reading Jenny’s perspective in this novel. I felt for her through the course of the novel and while her story still had dangling threads left untied, the ending of her respective story left me satisfied.

On the contrary, I did not like Ellen’s perspective through the novel at all. It made me so angry, I had to restrain myself from throwing my e-reader against the wall. Much of my sentiments isn’t only focused on what Ellen did, it was her thoughts throughout the novel and how convenient everything seemed to work out for her. While I know I was supposed to feel sympathy for her situation given the themes and transpired events in the novel, her narrative left me cold because I saw her as nothing but a privileged, selfish brat who never learned a darned thing by the end of the novel. It was like she got off scott free from her responsibilities/actions by the end of the novel and I’m wondering “How dare she say these things?”

I’ll start at the beginning: Ellen is a social worker who’s worked difficult cases in the past involving removing children from difficult homes and situations. The tables turn when during one tense, busy morning of miscommunication, and an event where Ellen is on the job trying to save the lives of the children she’s in charge of, her own daughter ends up nearly losing her life. Ellen’s husband had left their 1 year old, Avery, in the backseat of the car, for Ellen to take to daycare. Ellen – overwhelmed and nodding though she didn’t completely understand her husband’s actions – didn’t realize Avery was still in the backseat, drove to her job, and left Avery in the backseat of a hot car.

The little girl reached a temp of 105, and strangers had to break into the van to get her out. Ellen only realizes this after the fact and completely freaks out. Her horrified reaction is understandable, her pain palpable, her guilt unimaginable for what the situation should lend. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. While I’m not a parent myself, I’ve worked with kids in the past. When a child is in danger or subject to something like this, especially on the part of a parent realizing something they did directly led to the event, it’s hard to take in. That parent would go through the motions, especially in the duration of seeing whether their child will pull through or not. Not to mention dealing with the consequences.

But I couldn’t forgive some of Ellen’s internal reactions. She made it all about herself. “Why did this happen to me?” “I’m not one of THOSE people.” “I’m a social worker.” It’s such a privileged, prejudicial attitude in this situation. If this book meant to clarify the roles of awesome things that social workers do for children as well as the irony of the situation Ellen faces with respect to her role in this tragedy, I think Ellen’s privileged attitude towards her occupation and the situation really shortchanged the portrayal. Severely.

First off, this event did not happen to Ellen, it happened to her DAUGHTER, Avery. It was Ellen’s responsibility – though an unfortunate accident – in terms of the life or death balance that Avery fought within. Avery is the victim here. As much as I realize that Ellen is a flawed character, the fact she kept evoking her employment as a social worker was one thing that annoyed the heck out of me. Like it was some badge of honor that put her above and beyond anyone else, that it was something that gave her an automatic pass for being able to see her daughter in the hospital, rather than being restricted and accused for child neglect/abuse. While I had sympathy for Ellen in terms of having to face the judgment of her husband, her children, her family and his family, as well as her own internal battles of guilt and longing for her child – that sympathy pretty much left after the series of conveniences that fell in her lap as well as her petty gripes through the whole thing.

Examples: Her friend Joe, who just so happened to be a police officer she’d collaborated with as a social worker, says there’s a warrant out for her arrest, but in some ways it was like he said “Oh, but don’t worry, I made a deal and you can turn yourself in by 6:00 tomorrow, so I don’t have to handcuff you.”

Her connections pretty much gave her the hook-up for convenience. Privilege.

She calls a former DA rival, who automatically takes her case for the high-profile battle in the media the incident brought. Privilege.

She complains to her mother about being strip-searched – which is humiliating, true, on top of the worry she has over her child, but the way she complains over it, as if she’s above it all? Privilege.

Granted, there are times when irony rears its head, and so called “smaller people” (this isn’t mentioned in the novel, but there are tones suggesting this given Ellen’s occupation) speak up and do things for Ellen that she doesn’t expect, even when she’s done some difficult things to them in the past, such as taken away their children in a difficult home environment. I would’ve probably had more sympathy if truly every person in Ellen’s life turned against her, and she’d taken strides to truly fight for her child as well as own up to her wrongdoing, rather than just using her position as a crutch to justify the fact that this was all just a “terrible mistake” and saying “I’m not THAT parent,” essentially eliminating herself from pretty much every other person who might’ve been in this particular situation. It is not allieviated by the fact that she labels herself as being “THAT” person later on, the labeling just makes it worse.

It was such a B.S. way to put it, really. Even passive. It made a series of difficult questions of what if form in my mind as I was reading this on the note of privilege for what the situation presented:

What if she wasn’t a social worker, and didn’t have the connections she had to “help” her along in this case?
What if she were poor?
What if she were a POC?
What if her husband hadn’t been as understanding as he was?
What if her case hadn’t had the media coverage it had?
What if she weren’t able to afford a decent attorney?

A lot of what if’s could’ve changed the scope, perspective and even outcome of this situation, and while Gudenkauf explores some “what ifs” from Ellen’s perspective, it didn’t feel like nearly enough or even with substantiated weight to give Ellen’s struggle meaning. So it was very hard to feel for her.

Worse, towards the end of the novel, when Ellen’s reflecting on Jenny’s situation, there’s a measure where Ellen’s highly judgmental of Jenny’s mother’s actions, which seems contradictory given the weight of what she went through with people judging her apart from the circumstances that led up to that event. And I found this line especially ironic:

“I’m not so arrogant as to believe that my daughter’s recovery was due to my reentry into her life…”

But yet there’s arrogance there, in more ways than one and before that point. *sighs*

On the other hand, Jenny’s story was a good one, and probably a good part of why I give this novel 3 stars, almost shifting up to 3.5 stars. Jenny’s a young girl whose father is an alcoholic and struggles to keep employment. He’s not a perfect father, but he tries to take care of Jenny the best he can, especially since he has custody of his child and wants nothing to do with Jenny’s mother, even after their divorce. The reason for this was that Jenny used to live with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Jenny was subject to constant abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, with pictures of bruises to prove such.

Jenny plans to take the bus with her father to move to yet another city, but things change when her father’s jumped by shady associates whom he interacts with. Cops try to intervene, but they end up arresting Jenny’s father, and Jenny ends up trapped on departing bus, leaving her father behind.

There’s a bit of converging storylines as Jenny ends up in the watchful care of Ellen’s mother and family. I won’t spoil how the storylines come together and what transpires, but Jenny’s voice and situation are more honest and identifiable than Ellen’s was. I felt for the little girl and felt her hurt, betrayal, and confusion in some tough situations. She’s young (I think the narrative said she would be entering 5th grade. It’s also insinuated that she struggles as a student), and so the narrative seems to adapt to her voice in the third person versus Ellen’s first person account, but I did feel like some moments made Jenny seem like she was younger than what she was. Nonetheless, I liked reading that part of the narrative and it felt more intimate and jarring than Ellen’s tale did in places.

I will say that “Little Mercies” kept me reading through all the way to the end, but there were moments I think pulled me in and put me off at the same time. It’s dramatic, sometimes a bit hard to swallow in palpable realistic settings, but I did find value in it. I will look to see what Gudenkauf writes next because I find her narratives compelling for the writing and intimacy it wields, even if there are places that could be explored better or with less stumbles along the way.

Overall score: 3/5 stars

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Harlequin.

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