Daughters for a Time by Jennifer Handford
Publication Date: April 24, 2012
Target audience: Adult fiction
Keywords: infertility, adoption, cancer, loss of parent, estranged parent, marriage
Format read: ARC from Little Bird Publicity (Thanks!)
Summary: This book details the emotional journey of Helen, a woman who after years of trying to have a child with her husband, decides to adopt a baby from China. Just as she feels her life has taken a happier and more fulfilling turn, she finds out her sister, the person who brought her up, has cancer.
“Maybe heartache was more normal than the absence of it.”
We are all too familiar with the feeling of experiencing the highest of highs when, out of nowhere, the lowest of lows comes sweeping in and knocks you completely off-balance.
In Daughters for a Time, Jennifer Handford handles that crushing heartbreak with sensitivity and raw emotion. Though I know the book is a work of fiction, Handford’s own experience with adoption elevated the book to a whole new level of realism. There were moments I was so lost in the story I forgot I wasn’t reading a memoir.
Helen had a tumultuous childhood. Her mother dies of ovarian cancer when she is a freshman in high school, and around the same time, her father picks up and leaves. Her sister, Claire, is her support system, her mother, her everything for many years. But Helen remains curious about her father (who, as an adult, she “stalks”) and wants to be able to bring up stories about her mother without Claire brushing them off. At 35, as a successful baker and restaurant owner, even after experiencing her own love story with her husband (Tim), Helen still carries this baggage. Or the complete opposite of baggage, as she puts it. A hole in her heart. Throw in her and her husband’s repeated attempts conceive a child and it’s understandable why Helen is feeling withdrawn and lost.
The true rays of light in her life are Tim (he’s a ROCK), Claire, her niece, and when she can find quiet time in the kitchen. And after much soul-searching, the decision to go forth with an adoption of a baby girl from China. Helen is just counting the many days until their new daughter will be curling up in bed between her and her husband.
You see, this novel ranges from the happy sad to the sad sad. Helen is forced to come to terms with her past, even making moves to fix things with her dad, as well as accept her sister’s cancer diagnosis. Helen questions many times why things in life can’t go right all at the time same. Why can’t she have both her child and her sister? Why does it always have to be something? Handford writes with such honesty and has crafted an engrossing tale from every angle — the adoption, the insecurities she faces as both a mother and a mother of a child who was abandoned, the sisterly bond, even Helen reliving her angsty 14-year old self when her mother was very sick. While the book covers a good span of time, I wondered if there could have been more moments of showing and less telling. In 300 pages, I was connected enough to these characters that I probably could have read a hundred pages more if it meant some of the key moments were given more meat.
Though Daughters for a Time focuses on the bond between women as sisters, as mothers and daughters, and as friends, it lacked a bit of male perspective in some areas. For a long time, I wondered if Claire was even married. And Helen’s husband was such a great character too but he felt absent from scenes when I knew he was standing there, sharing the moment… except he was silenced. A little more testosterone would have balanced out many emotions in the story and made it even more relatable. I wanted Handford to dig deeper.
Despite minor qualms, this novel genuinely tugged at my heart strings. There’s never a perfect time to pick up a book that screams “disease” and “infertility” but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t experience them. Handford takes every day, powerful issues and skillfully, weaves in bits and pieces of hope even at the darkest moments. It’s surprisingly fast paced for such heavy content too; I found myself thinking about it a lot during my reading breaks. At the core,Daughters of a Timeis about the families we have and the families we create, the ebb and flow of the healing process, and the challenges life throws us and how we react to them.