Always and Forever
I’m a sucker for a saga. That is what drew me to Gretchen Craig’s debut – Always and Forever. Taking into consideration that this is her first novel, I would say we should look forward to great things from Ms. Craig. My one issue is a big one, and that is what warranted the lower grade.
The story revolves around two half sisters: Josie, the white daughter of the house, and Cleo, black daughter of a house slave. The girls grow up as friends and confidants on a Louisiana plantation. When Josie discovers that Cleo and another little boy share her father, relationships are strained. Josie’s father loves Cleo’s mother. He also loves his illegitimate children, sometimes more than his legitimate one. He cares for Josie…just not as much as Cleo. This sets her up for a lifetime of insecurities and feelings of betrayal.
As young women, the pair start to grow apart. While Cleo focuses on her new beau, Remy, a fellow enslaved person who wants to run north to freedom, Josie is being groomed by her grandmother to take over the plantation. When two men enter the picture, the girls separate farther into the roles society has chosen for them: master and slave. We can never tell who will end up with whom or in what dynamic the couples will be together. That is a definite strong point to the plot.
Always and Forever doesn’t follow any distinctive pattern. It is equal parts romance, family drama, and, maybe, historical chick lit. The writing is superb and the pages rolled by at a fast clip. Even with The Problem, I couldn’t put it down.
The Problem is this: there is a lot of plot in a small package. Well, 400+ pages isn’t small, but with everything going on it was. I would like – no, love – for the plot points to be further drawn out and less rushed. In the last 150 pages we have a courtship, betrayal, childbirth, more betrayal, a yellow fever epidemic, near death experiences, new business enterprises, even more betrayal, and a happy ending amongst other things. The last half just didn’t flow the same way the first half did and it really brought me down.
This is a drama rich in history. She doesn’t bend the rules of history and society by placing modern actions on historical men and women. Josie remarks about her monthly bath. No one rushes to stop a doctor from bleeding somebody. Even turpentine is used to help with a child who is teething. Socially acceptable today? Nope. But it the 1830s? You bet.
This leads me to a disclaimer. Some readers will most likely detest Josie and her actions. She is simply a product of her time, a white planter in the south. The rules do not bend for her. Taking into consideration the time and place, I think Josie is rather open-minded regarding slavery and infidelity. When she finds out that Cleo is her sister, not once is she put off because Cleo and her mother are slaves. She is hurt that her father kept his lover under the same roof as his wife and daughter and showed more love and affection to them. Josie does not have modern sensibilities. Keep that in mind and you will enjoy the story much more.
The rushed feeling in the last half of the book dragged the grade down, yet I will keep my eye out for future releases from Ms. Craig. The characters are still very much at the front of my mind, even after finishing the book several days ago. I look forward to the planned sequel to get reacquainted with this Deep South family. My recommendation: Give it a shot.