Two lonely women form a codependent, transactional friendship in Gail Lynn Hanson’s character-driven novel, The Palisades.
Born in 1942 to deeply religious, Lutheran parents, Dorothy Anderson was shaped by the movies. Inspired by the celluloid adventures of her idols Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury, the 24-year-old Chicago native moved to California to live with her Aunt Hedda. Hedda’s impressive social circle opened up a new world for Dorothy; she later met her husband, Eugene Fiske, at a party thrown by acquaintances of Hedda. Eugene may not have been Rock Hudson, but he loved to shower Dorothy with expensive jewelry. Eugene’s material generosity, however, never fully erased Dorothy’s unfilled wish to be a mother.
In 2006, years after Eugene’s death, Dorothy encounters Ruth, a 60-something unlicensed caregiver who works for Dorothy’s sister-in-law, Esther. Haunted by the trauma of childhood sexual assault and the untimely death of her son, Ruth is a loner whose only friends are the pigeons that gather on her windowsill. Faced with the threat of eviction, Ruth slowly gains Dorothy’s trust in hopes of taking over the widow’s house. As the two women grow closer, readers learn how Ruth and Dorothy’s past—and present—intersect.
Hanson’s literary novel skillfully holds a mirror to the darker aspects of the human psyche. Both Dorothy and Ruth are held hostage by their disappointments and painful regrets. At face value, neither are “likable” characters. Dorothy is unapologetically judgmental, classist, and racist. Ruth’s distressing personal history evokes sympathy, but she’s also manipulative and untrustworthy; after droves of patients died under her watch, Ruth was fired from her job at a state-run nursing home. Yet Hanson ably crafts an emotionally rich narrative that builds on the tension simmering between Dorothy and Ruth.
Anchored by Hanson’s deft character construction, this compelling story holds all the appeal of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller, and the cinematic ending will hit readers like a punch to the gut.
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