Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Fiction Review: The Desert Sky Before Us

Back in the spring, when I was still reviewing books for Shelf Awareness, one of the books they sent me was The Desert Sky Before Us by Anne Valente. I was intrigued by the road trip plot of the novel but just couldn't fit in a 400+ page book then, so I chose something else for that month. I was happy to see the same novel show up among my audio books to review this summer, so I included it in my Big Book Summer Challenge and listened to it on audio. It's the very thoughtful story of two sisters on a cross-country road trip that their recently-deceased mother set up for them.

Rhiannon shows up in Decatur, IL, to pick up her sister, Billie, from the state correctional facility where she has spent the past six years for setting fire to a university library, a crime that has never been explained to Rhiannon or her parents. Their mother, a renowned paleontologist, passed away a few months earlier, and both sisters are still grieving. After a brief stop at home, they set off on a cross-country trip that will end at a quarry in Utah where their mother did much of her work so that Billie can attend an informal memorial service and both girls can remember their mother at a place that was special to her. Rhiannon is surprised when they start the trip to find out that their mother left a journal with Billie the last time she visited her. She admonished Billie not to open it until the trip and not to look ahead, but the sisters find that each page of the journal contains a GPS coordinate and a small sketch, creating a sort-of geocaching scavenger hunt their mother set up for them. As they follow the coordinates and visit places that were special to their mother, the women also reconnect during long hours on the road. There is plenty of friction - and secrets - between them, but also warmth and memories. Gradually, as the miles pass by, they each begin to open up and share their secrets and without even knowing they needed it, they each begin to heal, too.

This is an emotional trip as much as a physical one, with each of the women having their own issues to work out, plus their relationship with each other and with their parents. Valente has created interesting female characters that make you want to learn more. Rhiannon is a former race car driver - one of the few women  drivers in the world - who quit for a job she doesn't enjoy. Billie was a hawk enthusiast and trainer and loved books before she mysteriously burned down the library. And the sisters discover that their mother lived a whole separate, full life that they knew little about as a paleontologist. The trip itself is interesting, too. We used to love geocaching and took our own cross-country road trips each summer, including some of the states the sisters go to in this novel, though I wish I had known back then - with two dino-loving sons - about all the cool dinosaur dig sites! There is also a thread of suspense through the story, as the sisters only slowly reveal their secrets - why did Rhiannon stop racing and why did Billie set fire to the library? I enjoyed the book for all of these elements, as well as the emphasis on science and nature, though there were points where it dragged a bit because the sisters' bickering and lengthy discussions sometimes felt repetitive. I'm glad that I listened to it on audio; I might have been less patient with it in print. I also see that the print book doesn't use quotation marks, and that can be a bit confusing/annoying, depending on your preferences.  All in all, it was a very thought-provoking and intriguing novel, and I enjoyed going along on the sisters' journey, both figuratively and through the gorgeous terrain of the West. It made me want to take a road trip myself!

426 pages, William Morrow Paperbacks

Listen to a sample of the audio book, from the start of the novel as the sisters reunite.

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  1. What a cool concept for the journal to have sketches and location coordinates. Like a scavenger hunt / road trip combination.

    1. Yes! Sounded like fun...though this was not really a fun trip for the characters!