FROM THE CHAPTER 16 ARCHIVE: This review originally appeared on April 21, 2020.
Your summer vacation dream involved the ocean, a beach chair, and a book. And, well, now your beach plans are on pause. But your elementary school librarian was right — in a good summer read, you can still travel anywhere. Let’s go somewhere warm. Somewhere frozen in time, with small-town charm. We’ll also need romantic tension, decades-long secrets, and cowboys. Enter Knoxville writer Jeannette Brown’s debut novel, The Illusion of Leaving.
Silver Falls, Texas, is the last place protagonist Jamie Wright wants to go. Her small hometown is smaller than ever (553 residents), making her larger-than-life father, Big Jim, even bigger. Though he chose not to put his name on anything, his contributions to Silver Falls’ businesses (and to individuals) have kept the town afloat as its population dwindles and its economy atrophies. These contributions not only provide financial security, they ensure Big Jim decides what happens in Silver Falls.
But since Jamie left home over 40 years ago, she’s been building a bigger life. She lives in a big city in a big house with a big Cadillac. Her stilettos are high and so are her hemlines. Yes, she’s not as young as she once was, but she’s finally made a life more expansive than her father’s ranch, far beyond his financial reach.
But the time to make peace with her estranged father is running out — Big Jim is dying. And the trip to make amends means heading right back where she started.
Like everything else in his life, Big Jim is doing death on his own terms. When Jamie’s short trip to say goodbye stretches into a lengthy one, she comes face to face with the ghosts of her past — old high school friends, her womanizing ex-husband, and a feeling of being an outsider she’s never been able to shake.
Her plan is simple: Make peace with Big Jim, get through the funeral without drama from her ex, sell the ranch that will almost certainly be willed to her, and burn rubber out of Silver Falls faster than you can say West Texas. Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan.
Jamie’s ex, Brady Joe, is omnipresent, and he’s been retelling a version of Jamie’s story for four decades, shaping public opinion about her. The judgmental townspeople still have ideas about how Jamie should behave, which they whisper loudly enough for her to hear as she passes. When Jamie’s old friend Gina, now a vegetarian children’s book illustrator, shows up, old animosities point to dark secrets that threaten the happiness of the lives they’ve both built outside of Silver Falls.
On top of everything, things go sideways at the reading of the will. Jamie learns things about the two most unforgettable men in her life that push her to confide in Gina and another old friend, a pink-haired teacher named Wanda. When Wanda and Gina take Jamie for a ride out to their old high school spot, they’re forced to take refuge in a tornado shelter in the midst of an unexpected storm. Alone with their pasts and a bottle of vodka, it’s unclear if these women are safer inside or outside the shelter.
Can a novel about woman in the second half of life be a bildungsroman? If so, then this one certainly is. Jamie must confront her father, her ex, her assumptions about the people of Silver Falls, and the narrative she’s telling about her own life.
At the close of the novel, a new and trusted friend offers Jamie this advice, “It’s been my experience that after a while, people forget the way things actually happened and just remember the version of the story that suits their needs.”
The Illusion of Leaving calls readers to consider their own versions of the past as they travel with Jamie through her engaging story, told with a mix of humor and self-reflection.
Sarah Carter lives in Nashville. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Sewanee School of Letters.
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