Feeling misunderstood? Put it into words. D.G., the narrator of Terry H. Watkins' novel, Darling Girl, shows us the effects of a growing up in a misguided family that covered up for a tyrannical father and a mother with an unnamed mental illness.
Today we know what emotional abandonment is. That label did not exist in the 1950s and 60s. Back then, appearances meant everything and a girl's self-esteem was measured against the standards of Seventeen Magazine. As long as you didn't look stuck in a life you hated, you weren't stuck. Minds got twisted more easily when truths went unspoken and young girls buried themselves in fiction that was more logical than real life.
In Darling Girl, beginning in 1957 and continuing through 1969, we see what happens when a mother becomes too overwhelmed to cope with a selfish and disloyal husband. The narrator, D.G., doesn't understand that her father is committing her mother to a hospital and spending his time with other women. We discover it because of the author's details and skillful phrasing. Readers understand what young D.G. cannot.
In the 1960s, a doctor finally tells D.G.'s mother there is nothing wrong with her. Today, her mother would be given an anti-depressant and sent home within 24 hours, and she'd have the will and the skills to kick her husband to the curb. She wouldn't have to ask her fifteen-year-old daughter to drive to the back entrance of the hospital so she could sneak out.
Take all of this and add world travel—Europe, South Africa, or wherever the father's job takes them—and you find a family that looks healthy but is deteriorating internally. Though D.G.'s mother's illness is real, it's also a symptom of a deeper problem: no one can tell the truth because the father doesn't allow it. In a burst of energy, D.G.'s mother figures out a strategy to give her daughter the freedom D.G. lost when her father forced her to give up an art scholarship. He rules the family with an iron fist, putting his own priorities ahead of his families. Today, that would be emotional abuse. In the 50s and 60s, it was the way things were.
You'll love the irony of the title, Darling Girl. It's no accident that the narrator is called D.G. and not given a name. She could be so many girls and women from that era. This novel may help you look at your own upbringing through new eyes or it may adjust the way you act as a parent or grandparent. The story will make you grateful that we live in times where the stigma attached to mental illness is disappearing and parents are held accountable for the way they treat their children.
A native of nowhere and a traveler everywhere, Ms. Watkins has been on the road since the day she was born. Although rooted in the deep South, she has visited all seven continents and particularly enjoyed being ship-wrecked in Antarctica. Having worked in banking, computers, a nonprofit educating girls about STEM opportunities, and in education, she retired in 2014 and began writing shortly thereafter. When not writing or traveling, she reads and putters in the garden. Visit her website.
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