c.2022, Park Row Books
$27.99
320 pages

Pick yourself up.

That’s what you’ve been told since you took your first step: you fall, you pick yourself up and you take another step. Keep going. Don’t stop, do the next thing, you really have no other choice. Things’ll get better but, as in the new novel “The Two Lives of Sara” by Catherine Adel West, it might take a while.

Sara King did not want that baby.

He was always reaching for her, crying for her, hanging on her, and she was thankful that the other boarders at The Scarlet Poplar were happy to hold him and play with him because she didn’t want to. Mama Sugar, the owner of The Scarlet, said that Sara would learn to love the boy, but Sara doubted it.

She’d never love anybody after her mother died. Not after what her father did, not after she got pregnant, not after she had to leave Chicago for Memphis and lost touch with her friends, not after this child and the lies and the losses. It was 1963, she was appreciative of Mama Sugar and her job at The Scarlet and all, but she wasn’t going to love anybody again.

But time passes and wounds heal and a teacher at the Black school a couple blocks away finally melted her heart and then he asked Sara on a date. Mama Sugar was happy that Sara went out with Jonas Coulter and eventually, so was Sara when she allowed her mind to open to him. She fell in love — with her son, with Jonas, her community, and with her large, newfound family at The Scarlet.

But life has a way of swatting happiness over to one side and once again, Sara found herself closed off to everything good. That meant another reinvention of herself, another place, another decision that affected people she’d come to know. How much worse could her life be?

How much worse could she make it?

There’s one big thing you need to know about “The Two Lives of Sara”: bring tissues.

From the outset of her novel, author Catherine Adel West sets a flat tone, as if there is no color or depth to the life of her character, as if it’s forever cloudy and her days are empty. Slowly, though, as a painter creates a masterpiece, the other characters at West’s fictitious boarding house add layers of light and hue to Sara’s life, until the book seems to glow with happiness and a reader can breathe a sigh of relief.

Followed by a gasp, as we learn the truth about the child, what was left behind in Chicago, and two or three other things that plunge readers back into shadows and hushed conversation and a tale that turns simply devastating. And that’s not even the end of the novel.

Bring tissues. Seriously.

Don’t look now, but the holidays are coming and “The Two Lives of Sara” could make a good gift. Or, if you just can’t wait — and who could blame you? — pick it up yourself.

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