Community Secrets and Unlikable Characters

Authors: Deborah and Joel Shlian

Leigh Novak has left the stress of a city emergency room and the fallout of her husband’s suicide behind, moving herself and her struggling young son, Jeremy, to a small town in northern California. Leigh is taking over from the current town doctor, sliding into what she presumes will be a low stress, easy life. When she shows up on her first day to find the old doctor in a coma, however, things go from bad to worse. After loosing her first patient, a young child that she should have been able to save, the town looks at her with distrust and enmity. Only Nora, the beloved town babysitter / daycare keeper, shows Leigh compassion and friendship. Nora, however, has an ulterior motive.

As Leigh deals with the inquest and her son’s growing bad behavior, she finds herself attracted to the lawyer leading the case against her. She tries to grow her practice and slowly prove herself. She ignores her son’s warnings, his fears about Nora, even the death of his kitten.

Wednesday’s Child is a dark, slow book about child abuse and how it can effectively manifest, unseen, in the middle of a community. Fortunately, it doesn’t show much of the actual abuse (and there is no sexual abuse, although there is plenty of other bodily harm). It’s disturbing both for its content and for the representation of Leigh, the supposed protagonist who chooses to believe a stranger over her own son. Add to that horrific animal abuse – Nora kills a poor, adorable kitten – and you have a story that is too awful to really be enjoyable.

The story is also too slow. We begin with a scene that doesn’t entirely make sense, a background moment that is supposed to show us Nora’s evolution from abused to abuser. Ostensibly, this is to show the cycle of abuse, the sadness and complexity of it, but despite the complicated empathy that we are intended to feel, we remain mostly bored by the characters. Nora is a one-dimensional monster. Leigh is selfish, driven by her own oscillating emotions, and entirely asleep at the switch. It’s hard to feel any emotion for either villain or hero than a vague, but hardly passionate dislike.

Image by Juraj Varga from Pixabay

Jeremy, the main child of the story, is essentially an adult in a five-year old’s body, which makes the abuse and horror easier to read through, but ultimately less impactful. He is also very one dimensional in the story, as is pretty much everyone else. And they are all very, very naïve, to the point of unbelievability. I refuse to believe that the old doctor didn’t put the pieces together, even though I figured out in the first five pages what the medical records for all Nora’s children were really showing, and I NEVER figure out the mystery in advance.

After plodding along, mostly setting the scene for two hundred uneventful pages, we have a sudden transition to a thriller-like conclusion, with drama and killing and retribution and all the stuff that doesn’t fit with the plot, the characters, and the general pace of the book. It’s a Hail Mary save, a realization that something has to happen so that the book can end. It’s not effectively, not believable, and not interesting. Again the emotional dimension fails.

The only interesting part of this book was the fact that I finished reading it while on safari, and my old battered 80s copy is now resting in a safari lodge in a remote Tanzanian park, waiting for some unfortunate, bored traveler who forgot to charge his or her Kindle. Not recommended.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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