Bottom Line: Gorgeous and gut-wrenching novel on love, race relations, and the ties that bind us together.
“Eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister has a favor to ask her hairdresser Dorrie Curtis. It’s a big one. Isabelle wants Dorrie, a black single mom in her thirties, to drop everything to drive her from her home in Arlington, Texas, to a funeral in Cincinnati. With no clear explanation why. Tomorrow.Dorrie, fleeing problems of her own and curious whether she can unlock the secrets of Isabelle’s guarded past, scarcely hesitates before agreeing, not knowing it will be a journey that changes both their lives.Over the years, Dorrie and Isabelle have developed more than just a business relationship. They are friends. But Dorrie, fretting over the new man in her life and her teenage sons irresponsible choices, still wonders why Isabelle chose her.Isabelle confesses that, as a willful teen in 1930s Kentucky, she fell deeply in love with Robert Prewitt, a would-be doctor and the black son of her family’s housekeeper – in a town where blacks weren’t allowed after dark. The tale of their forbidden relationship and its tragic consequences makes it clear Dorrie and Isabelle are headed for a gathering of the utmost importance and that the history of Isabelle’s first and greatest love just might help Dorrie find her own way.”
Thoughts: Calling Me Home, and more specifically Isabelle’s story, will break a reader’s heart. Told in flashbacks, it is a story that weaves its way inside a reader, entangling one’s heart with its apparent simplicity. By the time the first shocking twist occurs, the reader is lost to her story of love, loss, betrayal, and ultimately of hope.
Isabelle is a fascinating character. As an elderly lady heading towards her past, she is feisty, determined, and refreshingly open and honest. In the flashbacks, as a young girl, she is spoiled and very naïve. Her actions initially cross the boundary between foolish and just ignorantly, and dangerously, selfish. However, as she faces things no teenager should face and proves that she is mentally and physically stronger than she initially appears, glimpses of her future self break through her façade. By the time her past catches up to her present, there is no doubt that Isabelle is a character for the ages – modern, open-minded, and tough beyond reason.
Dorrie is Isabelle’s counterpoint and subsequently not as interesting. Whereas Isabelle made some tough decisions and stood by them no matter what the consequences, thereby earning a reader’s everlasting respect, Dorrie’s own reflections on her past and questions about her future pale in comparison. It is not a fault of her character but rather a testament to Isabelle’s fascinating story that makes a reader want to skim through her scenes and hurry back to Isabelle’s tale.
Those familiar with the route Dorrie and Isabelle take from Texas to Cincinnati will enjoy the references to famous, and not-so-famous, spots. Similarly, Isabelle’s childhood in Northern Kentucky will resonate with residents of the area, as Ms. Kibler perfectly captures the area’s heartbeat. Having spent the last seven years in this area and having made the same drive multiple times, her descriptions tickled me pink with their familiarity.
That being said, some of the situations in which Dorrie and Isabelle find themselves as they travel north were bothersome. Perhaps it is an innate naiveté, but the amount of bias they receive as two women with different skin colors traveling together was as surprising as it was upsetting. Surprise at their age difference was understandable, but the prejudice they experience is more difficult to accept. This is the only aspect of the story that feels false, almost forced, as it is an attempt to confirm that race relations have not really changed since Isabelle was a young girl.
If Calling Me Home is any indication, Julie Kibler is going to become a very popular author. Her debut novel has all of the features of a fascinating and successful novel – unrequited love, drama, tension, enthralling characters, and a tightly-woven story that charms and captivates. She touches on the timeless issue of race relations and wraps them around one of the most beautiful, authentic, and painful love stories in quite some time. It is, quite simply, a stunning debut.