Release date: August 18, 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ (7/10)
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Second Mother is a mystery/thriller novel set to be released by Sourcebooks Landmark on August 18, 2020. It was written by award-winning novelist Jenny Milchman, who has written three previous bestsellers that received acclaim by the New York Times and USA Today, among others. The tagline of the novel reads, “Opportunity: Teacher needed in one-room schoolhouse on remote island in Maine. Certification in grades K-8 a must.”
PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Julie Mason is living a gray, dreary existence in the remote Adirondack mountains, where it feels as if time has ceased to have any meaning. She rarely eats, and barely ever leaves her own house, until something compels her to answer an ad on Opportunity.com for a teaching position on an even-more remote island off the coast of Maine. She’s spent a year grieving the sudden loss of her young daughter, Hedley, helped along by a generous serving of scotch every night…but she knows that it’s time she starts trying to really live again.
But Julie’s about to get more change than she bargained for, when her husband suddenly announces that he’s filing for divorce. Shocked, Julie realizes that she’ll be moving to Mercy Island alone, for a complete and total life do-over. The island is cut off from the mainland by a choppy and sometimes unforgiving sea, and the islanders are just as secretive and protective about Mercy Island as Julie expected. But she has Depot, her loyal dog, and a gorgeous new home on a cliff high above the sea.
The Second Mother seems like a treatise on “old” generational power and money, and how those who possess these things – and thus, often control entire economic and political systems – are often willing to do ANYTHING to keep hold of their position of power.”
The Mercy Island community is tight-knit and somewhat reserved to strangers and newcomers, but Julie works hard to make friends and settle into a new routine. As her teaching position starts, and she meets the island families who’ve lived on Mercy for generations, Julie begins to suspect that there’s much more beneath the surface of the island than she originally thought. There’s the troubled young boy who sneaks into her house when she’s not at home, and the sinister messages and warnings that show up on her doorstep…not to mention the dark and mysterious woods that line her path into town.
Julie begins to realize that there are people on the island who aren’t quite happy she’s arrived, and who want nothing more than to keep their “sacred” island secrets and traditions. The more involved she becomes in their lives, and the more she tries to help, the more danger she realizes she’s in. It’s starting to seem as if there’s no way out, and no way off of the island for her – and as if the islanders themselves truly have no mercy for Julie.
MY THOUGHTS: This was my first read by Milchman, and I did enjoy it, even though it’s not typically my favorite type of mystery/thriller. I tend to go for a twisty, unpredictable whodunit (like Alice Feeney), or mysteries that involve friendships/competition between women (like Lianne Moriarty or Sally Hepworth).
The Second Mother is instead an atmospheric thriller that relies heavily on the location as its own dark and mysterious entity. If you’re familiar with Tana French’s Dublin murder series (and who isn’t?), you’ll know exactly what I mean. It begins in the remote Adirondack mountains, where Julie lives with her bland and boring husband (really – you won’t miss him), and ends on the isolated and distant Mercy Island. There are cliffs over crumbling beaches, large and dangerous rocks, and dark, shadowy woods with hard-to-follow paths. There’s barely any cell signal, with reception only available near the tiny town library…and the wi-fi connection is spotty and can go down with any storm or downpour.
Julie works hard to become a better teacher, a better friend, and a better person, even as the dark forces behind the scenes at Mercy Island are hell-bent to keep her from accomplishing anything that could topple their tightly-controlled house of cards.”
These elements aren’t nearly as terrifying as the people on Mercy Island, however. Milchman weaves a deadly spider web of corruption, control, and classism that has its own vernacular and caste system. The Second Mother seems like a treatise on “old” generational power and money, and how those who possess these things – and thus, often control entire economic and political systems – are often willing to do ANYTHING to keep hold of their position of power. The children themselves “bear the burden” of their parents’ socioeconomic status; in one particularly sinister scene, the young children mock and deride the child of one of the poorest fishermen, as they simultaneously defer to the child of the island’s wealthiest elite.
This makes the story feel like an observation of real life in so many ways…and Julie herself is the young newcomer, ready to usher in unwanted change and reform. We’ve all felt like the outsider at some point in our lives (…haven’t we?), and this allows us to empathize as Julie struggles to understand the strange customs and habits of the native families. In addition, Julie herself battles a dependence on alcohol that has allowed her to cope with the devastating losses of her child and, now, her marriage. She approaches her new job and new home as a fresh start, so even as she falls deeper into the mysteries of Mercy and its children – including one difficult and frightening little boy, in particular – she struggles to do so while becoming sober and with a clean slate.
This book is a good story about resilience, determination, and the desire to do what’s right. Julie works hard to become a better teacher, a better friend, and a better person, even as the dark forces behind the scenes at Mercy Island are hell-bent to keep her from accomplishing anything that could topple their tightly-controlled house of cards. The ending provides us a resolution of sorts to many of the open questions of the novel; while the story itself is (just maybe) slightly too-long, I definitely would have enjoyed a more detailed ending/epilogue that focused on what would happen for Julie and the other main characters moving forward.