Jessica Treadway: And Give You Peace

Jessica Treadway
And Give You Peace
Graywolf Press

TOM DOLAN, A middle-aged father, has recurring dreams of his family's car breaking down and exploding. He takes the car in for service to assuage his worries, but no mechanic can find anything wrong. Soon after, his fifth-grade daughter Anastasia sees the car in flames on the side of the road. She learns it was her father who torched the car because, as she explains years later, "He couldn't stand thinking about it--imagining it--anymore. It was like he had to do it himself, because his dream was so real, and he was so sure it would come true."

These same tensions drive Jessica Treadway's dramatic first novel And Give You Peace, which centers on the effect of this man's acute obsessive-compulsive tendencies on his wife and three daughters. In the days before the story's start, the Dolans lead a seemingly normal, middle-class life in a small town in upstate New York. Anastasia, who narrates this story, is the brainy, thoughtful, typical eldest child. Middle daughter Justine flirts with boys and diligently watches her weight for cheerleading tryouts. Everyone dotes on the innocent--and doomed--Meggy, the baby of the family. Then, in a chillingly calculated act, Mr. Dolan shoots Meggy and then himself, and this tidy family existence unravels into turmoil.

The meat of the novel focuses on the survivors' respective quests for something to "give them peace" in the wake of the catastrophe. For Mr. Dolan's estranged wife, this involves an unnaturally expeditious remarriage and a forced attempt to rebuild a happy home. Justine's grief leads to countless hours spent quasi-comatose on a couch, wolfing down every type of junk food that previously would have repulsed her. Anastasia seems to be the only family member intent on tying together the frayed emotional threads of her father's lethally fragile psyche.

Treadway goes for the jugular right away: Her characters' deepest, most disturbing family secret is revealed in the opening pages of the novel. Through Anastasia's search for answers, which constitutes the rest of the book, we glean some hints as to what went wrong. The state of Mr. and Mrs. Dolan's faltering marriage surfaces, as well as other examples of Mr. Dolan's precarious mental condition. In a suicide note that Anastasia eventually unearths, we discover her father's irrational fear of Meggy's newfound maturity--a fear that is magnified when he catches Meggy kissing a neighborhood boy, days before the shooting. The same suicide note addresses a moment during Meggy's youth when her father fantasized about throwing her over the edge of a boat on a family trip: "I was just exhausted from thinking. Trying to get the picture out of my brain. Sooner or later, the only way to get rid of it is to make it happen."

Treadway relays such accounts and intimate details through clean and simple prose. In one scene, Anastasia remembers the heartbreaking moment when her sister was found murdered: The 16-year-old Meggy is in bed, clutching her baby blanket and wearing an old, period-stained nightgown. Although Treadway's novel ably explores what happens when a family disintegrates, we're still left, like Anastasia, grasping for more at the end. Mr. Dolan's suicide note is empty and vague, and ultimately, the novel concludes in the same manner. Anastasia confides in us her family's most horrible secret, but only in a half-whisper.

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