As a longtime fan of Barbara O’Neal, I was ecstatic to get an advanced copy of her next novel, Write My Name Across the Sky. Like all of her novels, this one just swept me off my feet. The characters, the setting, the plot– it all combines into a truly an un-put-down-able book that pulls you in and doesn’t let go until you’ve read the last word, and even then you may be tempted to immediately reread it. I always rate my books on how likely I am to want to reread, and this one is a five star, for sure, can’t wait to delve back into their world kind of book.
Gloria, Willow, and Sam are an unconventional family. A flight attendant during the 70s, Gloria rushed home to care for her nieces Sam and Willow when their rock-star mother suddenly died. Now Gloria’s in her mid-seventies, living a full and beautiful life as an influencer and showing the world that age doesn’t limit joy, when she discovers her beloved lover from her past has been arrested. Prickling with fear over her role in his misdeeds, she calls Willow home from California. Willow comes under the guise of house-sitting, but truly needs a place to recover from a failed relationship and a flop of her debut album. Once a prodigy, Willow fears she’ll never outgrow the shadow of her mother’s fame. Sam, a fiercely independent video game developer, is fighting off sharks as her company flounders. As the three women reunite, old tensions flare and all three are forced to face their past and confront their future.
Why is it the books we love the most are the hardest to review? This novel absolutely ensconced me, wrapping me up with its characters, plot, and setting. It had me dreaming of rooftop gardens and far off places while yearning for my own roots.
One of the themes often found in O’Neal’s books, and a primary reason I return to them again and again, is the variety of her characters. Her novels feature protagonists of all ages and stages, side characters so fully fleshed you expect to bump into them on the street and recognize them. I love how Gloria knew what she wanted, a life without children and marriage, and didn’t apologize for it despite the unforgiving expectations of her time. Sam is a woman in a male dominated industry, familiar with the way female gamers are treated and doing something to change it. Willow falters with her own self-worth after an album flops, yet continues to return to the music that fills her and explore how she can follow her heart for music.
Sam’s fierce independence and Willow’s genuine authenticity bump up against each other, different sides of the same coin. All of the characters are truly a study in how trauma can impact lives in different ways, leaving a lasting impression that can continually influence behaviors.
Each character struggles with their own flaws and imperfections, a roiling process that isn’t fixable in any linear way. As the narration alternates between Gloria, Willow, and Sam, the reader is offered insight into their actions and behaviors, given their motivations, and develops an intrinsic understanding for each of them.
I love how each of their passions- gardening and art for Gloria, game design for Sam, and music for Willow- provides insight into their characters. These passions shape how they view the world, and both help them understand and be understanding. Their different ways of coping with grief and its everlasting imprint is insightful and thought provoking.
The New York setting is practically a character unto itself, as is each of the cities Gloria discusses in her flashbacks to her flight attendant days. Where we are can have such a deep influence on who we become, and Gloria exemplifies this. New York City is neither the glossy version nor the gritty side of itself often found in books and on screens, but rather simply presented as home. It is the place where their memories are, where they’ve found important people and experienced the things that shape them. It’s their anchor, their home beacon, and its the place that has the gravitational pull of home.
Write My Name Across the Sky will be available on August 10, 2021 from Lake Union Publishing. Thank you to Barbara O’Neal, Lake Union, and Net Galley for an advanced copy such that I could write this review.