Newly out on July 25th, The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman asks us to explore the terrifying realities behind child abuse and neglect. The story follows two girls: Lilly and Julia, who have been raised by the same parents in two separate decades. Lilly’s story begins in the late 1930s, and Julia’s in the late 1950s. Lilly has been born with albinism and her parents have kept her hidden in an attic bedroom under lock and key in their giant mansion on their profitable horse farm. Lilly has never been outside, until her mother drags her out in the dead of night to sell her to the circus currently leasing a plot of their land. She is treated abhorrently to break her spirit and is then featured in the sideshow freak tent for most of her tenure there. She is nine or ten when her mother sells her.
Julia is working at a diner and living with roommates in horrible conditions. She’s washing herself in the bathroom of a grocery store and stealing Spam when we first meet her, and then it’s revealed that her (and Lilly’s) parents have died and left her the entire estate. The only condition is that she must return to the farm and live there. So our journey with Julia is discovering the secrets of her family’s past by way of rummaging through the giant mansion with her mother’s large ring of ancient keys.
These two stories slowly make their way toward each other, but at the outset there appears to be no link other than their shared parents. My mind, always on the lookout, detected what was going on early, but it does not ruin the twist or the ending to know. In fact, the twist you think is THE twist is not the ultimate surprise. The surprise is simply devastating, and my mouth hung open and tears escaped from my eyes in disbelief as I read everything coming together to give us, the readers, the final piece of the puzzle.
I really respect an author who gives it to me straight. I don’t always need a happy ending, but I do insist on an ending that makes sense. Convenient endings make me furious. Wiseman was decidedly NOT convenient with her ending, and while it may be sad, painful, and jaw-dropping, it’s real and leaves you with something to think about.
Go get The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman. You won’t be disappointed.