by Tammy Flanders Hetrick
Tammy Flanders Hetrick's stunning debut novel, Stella Rose, hooked me on the first page and I was glued to it until the end of the book. Relationships are thematic throughout: family, friends, work, and romance—not always in that order. The story opens as Abby returns from the funeral of her best friend, Stella Rose, on a cold Vermont June day. Stella bequeaths guardianship of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Olivia, to her best friend, Abby, and the story unfolds at a sometimes frightening pace.
The depiction of Stella's struggle with cancer is accurate; it brings back melancholy recollections of watching my parent's losing their battles with this monster disease. Yet somehow Stella finds the strength to leave poignant letters and gifts for Olivia and Abby to open each month during the year following her death.
Abby and Olivia have their ups and downs, but grow close despite Olivia's rejection and rebellion. There are times Olivia seems like a lost cause. Abby navigates the treacherous waters of teenage deception with determined anguish. Living together in their separate worlds, they keep their secrets while dancing around each other as if a ghost is keeping them apart. And Stella's spirit is always there. Abby's ongoing monologues with Stella add a touch of humor as the story weaves its way into the reader's heart. Olivia adamantly refuses to talk about her mother, even though her mother's death is always on her mind.
Abby finds herself trying to choose between two suitors as she struggles to adjust to living in Stella's home in the small town and commutes to her job as a museum curator in the city. When tragedy strikes, petty differences are overcome as Olivia struggles to survive. Olivia's father visits from California. He wants to take Olivia to live with him and his new wife and toddler son. Olivia is adamant against changing schools in her senior year of high school. Abby wants to honor her best friend's wishes and keep Olivia in her own home until Olivia leaves for college. Abby's complicated relationship with her own mother is resolved in the course of the novel, which helps Abby finally see her mother from a positive perspective.
This is a well written novel that explores the ties that bind with a depth that is seldom seen in a first novel. The story is structured in chronological order. The monthly letters provide backstories which add depth and character development. The story is told through Abby's point of view, though the monthly letters from Stella present her perspective, even though posthumously. Stella Rose is a novel that will stay with the reader long after reading the book.
Tammy Flanders Hetrick lives with her husband in Vermont. They have two adult children and Tammy has found the empty nest enhances her time for creative writing. She worked as a business writer for many years but prefers writing fiction. Tammy has had several short stories published; this is her first novel. Visit her website.
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