Better Days Ahead is a 1950’s saga of several families whose misfortune leads them to California. Their lives begin in disparate settings and by the end of the novel are entwined in multiple ways, struggling with racism, violence, class differences, and the loss of their collective innocence.
I found that throughout most of the book, the struggles overshadowed any moments of growth or contentedness for the characters, which made the novel increasingly difficult to read as it continued.
Chapter 1, set in 1950:
A drunken lounge singer who does not know she is pregnant goes into labor and thinks it’s indigestion, which she should treat with rum. More rum. Lots of rum. And a little Coke (liquid, not powder). Her water breaks in a flood and she collapses in the puddle while she’s on stage singing. She gives birth to a breech baby boy who, while it’s not said outright, is likely premature. But what IS said outright is:
“The doctor moved his hand from the point at the top of the baby’s head down to what should have been the back of a rounded skull, but was, instead, pancake flat. The doctor was certain that these malformations were created by the mother’s serious weight deficiency.
‘His head is groteqsuely deformed and it’s likely that he’ll be retarded….’
‘Please, doctor, I beg of you. DO whatever you can to make my baby well.’
Dr. Clark had no choice but to honor his Hippocratic oath…. He placed his hands on the baby’s head, and began applying pressure to the protrusion. He ignored the infant’s hysterical cries as he attempted to mould the crown. Pressing and pushing at the baby’s capitulum, Dr. Clark shaped it as if it were a slab of clay. He was successful in forcing the point to a smooth curve, although he could not fully round the back of the skull. Dr. Clark had made a vast improvement to the original disfigurement.”
Now, I’m pretty sensitive to most things baby-injury related, and this literally made me nauseated. Babies’ skulls are flexible and soft, but they aren’t softened clay. And pressing on a skull protrusion? With softened birth-canal-ready skull bone on top? Wouldn’t that, say, DAMAGE THE BRAIN? If the child weren’t likely to be “retarded” when he was born, he would certainly be mentally damaged now!
Further, regarding whether she knew she was pregnant, I am fully aware that there are some women who are able to completely mentally suppress any knowledge that they are pregnant. I find that hard to believe in this case. I submit the following evidence: “Her five foot four medium-built frame had never boasted an enviable hourglass figure.” That could mean she’s fat or she’s very thin, and since she’s discussed as malnourished in later pages, I’m going to go with thin. I’m 5’3”. I am not my ideal weight. I’m a bit over. Fine. At any time PAST 20 weeks, I was identifiably pregnant. No way you couldn’t tell I wasn’t expecting. Yet this woman has a “small swelling of her abdomen” BUT gives birth to a boy who survives his first night in ICU with “no complications.” So he’s old enough to survive as a preemie, but she’s not big enough to look identifiably pregnant. And I’m left very confused as to whether this character is at all trustworthy in her observations of anything.
In the next chapter, another character is introduced who finds his wife in bed with some dude, so he divorces her, but his lawyer doesn’t list enough specifications in the custody settlement so the ex wife freely packs up the kids and her new husband and moves away without telling him. And thus he loses touch with his daughter. He marries again to an equally horrible woman, and though his friends know she’s awful, they don’t warn him, and yet again, he flies right into marital unhappiness, part deux. This time, his second daughter is subject to the abuse of his second wife, who is livid at the fact that her child was not a boy because a girl will compete with her mother for looks and attention.
Then, another character: a woman meets her future abusive spouse, goes out on their first date, and gets a little drunk off his homemade liquor. He decides to have sex with her, but, oh no! She has a hymen of steel:
“‘Goddamn it. I’m going to fuck you if it’s the last thing I do.’
Rather than torture himself, he thrust his fingers back into her orifice. Over and over he hammed then into her until his hand was covered with blood. Dolores was beyond the reality of pain. She was delirious, nearly unconscious. But Thom Drake wasn’t concerned. He grabbed his penis and with his entire body weight, he thrust himself into her. Finally, he penetrated her hymen. She was no longer a virgin when he collapsed onto her lanky body….”
‘So, Dolores, what do you think of making love? I thought it was pretty good myself. Once I broke through that steel door of yours….’
She didn’t know how to respond to him…. [N]o one had told her what to expect. So when Thom Drake told her he had just made love to her, she believed him.
‘It was alright, I guess. It hurt much more than I ever thought it would.’”
Covered with blood and he still has a hard-on? That is one dedicated first date/rapist. And, to make matters worse, she gets pregnant after that first experience.
I kept expecting something redeeming to happen to any one of the collection of characters, but very little in the plot changes the maudlin, depressing events.
Besides these examples of horrible violence and physical impossibility, the dialogue is stilted and unrealistic, the characters are wooden unless they are bleeding, and the only secondary character I liked was Ruthie, an African-American woman who takes in Dolores when she finally decides to take her two daughters and run her pregnant self away from Thom after he hits her in the head with a frying pan and tries to kick the baby out of her stomach. (Again, nausea). Not one of Dolores’ coworkers could rent her a room in their houses to get her away from her husband, though they all gossiped about how she should leave him. But Ruthie has plenty of room: she had inherited a house from her grandmother, who received it as an unprecedented bequest from her former owners. Ruthie thus became one of the only black landowners in 1950’s rural Alabama.
But then, enter the unrealistic: the outside of the house is kept in a dirty, shabby condition so no one would pay much attention to the house or it’s occupant. But the inside is like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia: beautiful plush furniture, warm lamplight and a perfect interior, all invisible from the street. They’ve been saved, just like the claymation baby.
And yet the sad events, often to the point of horror for this reader, continue. Ruthie was a lone influence of kindness in chapter after chapter of really shitful things happening to perfectly normal people, and in the end, even Ruthie isn’t exempt from evil.
The innocence that other reviewers of this book mentioned is certainly palpable, but instead of seeming historically appropriate, it seemed more unbelievable to the point of ludicrous, and was very disrupting to my involvement in the story. It also isn’t a romance, so readers looking for 1950’s saga romance, be warned.
My recommendations for future books in this series, as the author’s website indicates that it is a trilogy, would be to address, first and foremost, the dialogue. Often the characters say things that people wouldn’t say out loud, that don’t flow out of the mouth easily and seem stilted and awkward. Further, the characters spend time telling each other their backstories, instead of letting the story at hand progress. In general, there is a lot of telling, and not enough showing, which further damages the credibility of the characters.
But beyond the writing mechanics of fiction, the depths to which these characters sink was difficult for me to endure, especially when it became clear that the “better” was not really ahead, though perhaps the future installments will lead to more happiness for these characters.