Since my review blog is for independently published queer books, I rarely get a chance to look at mainstream literature or even the bestseller lists. I know that’s anathema to someone in my profession, but you only have time to read so many books, and I prefer stories in my own LGBTQ wheelhouse. It’s who I am and what I’m comfortable with. So, I had no idea who New York Times bestselling author Sheri Reynolds was. All I knew is The Tender Grave came in over the transom, so to speak, with some other Bywater Books. And it happened to be next on the list. I wasn’t prepared to be swept up in such a complex story whose back cover blurb totally belies its intensity.
Seventeen-year-old Dori has to leave town in a hurry. She and her boyfriend and some others have assaulted a gay classmate and left him for dead, so Dori’s mother gives her all the ready cash in the house and hustles her out on the first bus. Dori’s destination is the home of a long-lost older half-sister she’s never met. She doesn’t know that her sister, Teresa, is not only a lesbian but in a committed relationship with wife, Jen. Or that Teresa and Jen have been trying to get Teresa pregnant. All Dori knows is that the address she’s been carrying around is no good. After some false leads, she finally arrives on Teresa and Jen’s doorstep only to find that she and Teresa don’t like each other. In spite of her sister’s generosity, Dori runs away again. But her options are limited. Or are they?
In many ways, Dori and Teresa are opposites. Dori has taken a life; Teresa is trying to create one. Dori is headstrong and prone to impulsive decisions; Teresa is plodding and overthinks things. But once committed to a course of action, they are both determined to follow through. They both need family but have some very different ideas about what that looks like and what their roles are supposed to be. However, they know instinctively that their mother is a poor example.
Their mother, Hilda, only appears in a couple of scenes, but her presence is all over the place. Why did she abandon Teresa but stick around to raise Dori? Teresa desperately needs the answer to that question, especially since motherhood is her overriding ambition, but in the one scene they have together, Hilda doesn’t really provide one. Perhaps she can’t. She readily admits her shortcomings, but can’t explain her reasoning. She can never give Teresa what she needs, and as tough as being abandoned was, that realization may be even tougher.
Is the ending happy? Let’s just say Reynolds ends this the only way she can, with the essential question being how Dori and Teresa will shape their relationship moving forward. Reynolds does an admirable job of weaving character and plot. Dori’s scenes in particular will keep you on edge. She’s so volatile and has so many paths to destruction, you wonder which one she’ll take.
The Tender Grave is a splendid study of sibling relationships, full of rich, deep characters working their way through a totally believable and very unpredictable plot. It’s well worth your time and emotional investment.
© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler
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