When one marriage leads to another.
Publisher: Tinder Press (Hachette)
First Published: 1st March 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th April 2014
When the fire started burning down her polygamist community, Amaranth took her two daughters and escaped. Happy to marry and comfortable with her growing family, if uneasy about the ceremonies, Amaranth was glad to defend her people as women left and those living nearby took an interest in what was going on. But after her good friends leave and her husband draws their daughter too close, the first wife knows she and her daughters must leave, too.
Amity & Sorrow is the story of the plight of a mother who has become too used to her life. Interestingly, it is not so much about the plight of her daughters, which is the reason for some of the issues.
There is just something ‘off’ about the book. The cult is presented fairly well, but the writing style doesn’t fit the subject. Even though the reader knows the cult is bad, and has the details to imagine the situation, the literary style of writing distances you from it. The story may include the information, but it doesn’t truly try convince you of it, even if you are convinced.
It’s interesting to look at the choice the author made as to where the mother and daughters would end up. On the one hand you have them crashing the car into what many would see as a backwards place – a farm worked by only a couple of people; an ancient television set; a rarely-used petrol station; a lack of modern technology despite its day. What this choice means is that the family have little opportunity to see what life is like for the vast majority, to get used to the ‘new’, and to rehabilitate. This in turn means that the book lacks any big moments in the plot besides those in the flashbacks and at the end, and that whilst they escaped you might not feel as though the women will truly live life to the full, especially as Amaranth seems happy to remain in the first place they find.
But on the other hand, this lack of modernity, this lack of computers (other than one instance in a town) and so forth, mean that the family are eased into the world. It means that the changes in Amaranth especially (the girls will be discussed in due course) are slow and she has time to get back to life as it was when she was a member of society. You see more of her adjustment than you would if she’d found herself in Silicon Valley, or the like, where the change would have been immediate but only on the surface for its suddenness. Beginning in the middle of nowhere in a place more familiar in lifestyle, there is perhaps less of a chance she’ll return to the husband who brainwashed their daughter.
The sisters, Amaranth’s daughters, Amity and Sorrow, were born on their father’s land and therefore their reaction to their mother’s escape is, if not in words, that she has kidnapped them. Sorrow especially wants to return; she is the sister most brainwashed by her father, the cult’s leader. It is in Amity, the less extreme of the two, that the reader gets to see the most progression. Amity is more open to change, and whilst it may seem a little too fast a progression at times, Amity’s growth makes up for the little growth otherwise.
It is in Sorrow’s experience, specifically, that the story lies, and it’s also in her life that the potential dissatisfaction with the ending is to be found. She is not as developed a character as the others, in fact it could be said that she is a plot device; yet without her Riley wouldn’t have been able to explain her points. Sorrow was impregnated by her father, who had sex with her, having brainwashed her so much that she believed it was important and right that she and her father ‘make Jesus’. Whilst not commented on in the text itself, there is the obvious theme of consent running throughout the book. Incest itself is discussed.
And because it is this event that wakes Amaranth to the reality, finally, (if even then late in the day), the story continues on with Sorrow’s extremist beliefs taking what amounts to the biggest element of the book. Sorrow is always looking for a way back, because she doesn’t know any different and she is at an age where she won’t listen to her mother, especially not a mother who has left her, Sorrow’s, glorious father. The issue here is that whilst Sorrow’s extremism is believable, the extent to which she is, to all intents and purposes, encouraged, is not. Amaranth spends very little time with her daughters, even though, as the one person in the three who knows about the real world, she should have been helping them. Instead she starts to make a life for herself by herself.
A warning here to anyone who doesn’t want to read too many details: the ending of the book needs to be discussed because of what it effectively does, and will be in this paragraph. Amaranth, though obviously scared and still suffering from the manipulation and abuse under her husband, shows, in leaving the cult, that she still has her wits about her. She knows what is right and wrong both in regards to her own beliefs and the world at large, and she takes her daughters away from their father. Due to this escape, it is hard to believe that in the real world, such a woman would ultimately leave her daughter back at the cult’s land together with the father, after having tried and failed to convince the daughter to return with her to their new home. Maybe she would leave her temporarily while she went to the police for help, but leave her there for good? You can’t say that due to the possibility for danger, as the daughter is very unstable, it is best she stay away from Amaranth and Amity – the girl has had no chance to change and the handful of days during which there was space to influence her were not enough. At worst there are places she could be sent away for care. Perhaps Riley is showing us just how brainwashed and scared someone can become, but given everything that Amaranth does and thinks beforehand, the conclusion is not at all sufficient.
Where Amity & Sorrow gets it right is in the small things – the wondering about the changes to the world since Amaranth left it; the comparisons of dress and its relation to sexuality; the overall consideration of religious cults; to some extent, Amity. But with its poor choice of voice, underdeveloped characters, and the knowledge the reader will be left with when it’s over – the knowledge that what you’ve read is very wrong on a completely different level to the basic wrongness of the cult – one would be hard-pressed to recommend it for its story. You could try to come up with an explanation for the ending, but this is one book for which the ending is impossible to make right.
April 14, 2014, 9:11 am
TBH this almost feels like we’ve read different books. To me, A&S was trying to explore why people are attracted to such cults and why they might feel committed to them even when that appeal has worn off. I thought all the characters were strong and believable – even if I personally would not make their choices. Here’s a link to my review http://www.ourbookreviewsonline.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/amity-and-sorrow-by-peggy-riley.html and my interview with Peggy Riley http://www.ourbookreviewsonline.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/peggy-riley-author-interview.html
April 14, 2014, 10:52 am
I know this book received lots of good reviews a while back and I even got approved for it on Netgalley. One of those instances where I was approved, but didn’t get the email and never got to download it to read. I wish I had the chance to read it though. When I get hold of this book, I’m sure I will read and enjoy it.
April 14, 2014, 11:51 am
Thank you for such an honest review, I agree with so much you have to say. Definitely not a book I enjoyed, I was so incredibly disappointed by it.
April 14, 2014, 7:36 pm
This is a book I have in my TBR stacks to read, but one I have been reluctant to pick up based on all the mixed reviews. I just haven’t worked up the motivation to pick it up.
I did read the paragraph in which you discuss the end–and I find that extremely disturbing. It is almost enough to make me not want to read the book after all. I feel sick that a mother would place her child back in that type of situation.
Yet what Maryom says about her take on the book, about it exploring cult attraction and the like, appeals to me on some level.
I don’t know. I am not sure this book is for me.
April 15, 2014, 9:49 pm
I loved how dark and twisted this book was. It totally hooked me, but I can easily see how it’s not a book that everyone will like.