The trials and perils of adolescence have been a central theme in much American literature ever since Holden Caulfield beheld the world and pronounced it sick and corrupt. Amity and Sorrow, the misfit sisters who are at the heart of Peggy Riley's first novel, may remind us in some ways of Salinger's confused, embittered, frequently self-righteous protagonist. But in other ways they could not be more different.
Amity and Sorrow were born into and brought up within the confines of a polygamous cult.
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They have one father, whom they regard as a prophet, and 50 mothers; and they believe that they and their brethren are among the few who will be saved when the world ends.
By the time the novel begins, much of the girls' world has already come to a fiery end. The compound where they lived has been burned, and Amaranth, the girls' biological mother, has taken them and fled. She is convinced that her husband will follow: not an easy thing, as neither he nor they really know where they have ended up. But he is, after all, a determined man. Amity shares some of her mother's fear of their father, but Sorrow, who has been told that she is the Oracle through whom God communicates with the prophet and his followers, remains single-mindedly devoted to him. She is angry at having been removed from him, and wants only to be returned home.
After driving for several days without rest, Amaranth crashes her car, and the trio end up on a Midwestern farm belonging to a man named Bradley. Bradley seems to have spent the years since his wife's death moping around his property, keeping company with his aged father and an adolescent boy named Dust. The attraction that develops between Amaranth and Bradley feels both unconvincing and inevitable, demanded not so much by the laws of human psychology as by the conventions of novel plotting. (Neither Dust nor Bradley do much, and what they do is never surprising: both of them seem to have been plucked straight out of the Directory of Stereotypical Midwestern Characters.)
Amity's attraction to Dust comes across as more plausible — "Love the One You're With" is, after all, the unofficial theme song of every teenaged girl who has ever been stranded on a farm for the summer — but it isn't, in the end, much more interesting.
Sorrow, meanwhile, only has eyes for God — or maybe for her father; anyway, she doesn't really distinguish the two. Nobody will be surprised to learn that the more we find out about the relationship between Sorrow and her polygamous father, the less healthy and wholesome it seems. The relationship between Amity and Sorrow, on the other hand, is almost wholly one of enmity and sorrow: The more Amity tries to love her deeply troubled sister, the more zealous and difficult Sorrow becomes.
Indeed, Sorrow's unquestioning faith in her father and in the rightness of her own judgments, and her clear tendencies toward violence and destruction, render her one of the most repellent characters to be encountered in recent fiction, and many readers will lose patience with her long before Amity does. Riley maintains a certain distance from her, as if she is either unable or unwilling to get inside her head.
A novel can, of course, survive the inclusion of an entirely unsympathetic and impenetrable character, even a central one. But "Amity & Sorrow" does not really let us inside any of its characters. Sometimes they come across as specimens of an exotic species; at other times they are simple mechanisms, programmed to carry out the functions determined for them by the novel's plot. What they do not do is strike us as living, breathing human beings, and indeed, none of the characters is fully and generously imagined to the point where their humanness becomes an observable, let alone palpable, fact.
In the absence of greater insight into the characters, it might also have helped simply to have more characters. Before becoming a novelist, Riley worked as a playwright, so she may be accustomed to dealing with small casts of characters. But one of the great advantages of prose fiction is that you can have as many characters as you want, and it costs you nothing but imagination. A few more characters would have helped. A few unexpected actions, or even words, from any of the characters would have helped even more.
Riley is dealing with a world that is largely alien to the experiences of most Americans. Still, it is possible to deal with alien cultures — including those that exist within the larger cultural landscape of American life — in a way that is generous, imaginative and compassionate. I am thinking in particular of Brady Udall's recent novel, "The Lonely Polygamist," a book that featured a vast cast of characters and a deeply unpredictable plot, and which, because it refused in any way to exploit the exotic aspects of their lives, managed to make its protagonists and their unusual lifestyle seem more, rather than less, human.
The comparison is, of course, unfair, not least because Udall is an unusually talented writer. There is little point in denying, though, that Udall has set the bar for novels about contemporary American polygamy. As the example of "Amity & Sorrow" shows, it is a bar that it will be difficult for other writers to meet, let alone surpass.
Troy Jollimore's books include "Love's Vision" and "At Lake Scugog: Poems."
"Amity & Sorrow"
By Peggy Riley,
Little, Brown & Co., 312 pages, $25.99Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times