The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Once there was a family. The mother died when her children were young; the father, a traveling preacher, remained mostly absent. The eldest sister, Althea, raised her younger siblings. They are Viola, Joe, and the baby, Lillian. A generation later, Althea and her husband Proctor have twin girls, Kim and Baby Viola. Until recently, they also had a successful restaurant in a struggling Michigan town following a devastating flood (locally called the Great Flood). The couple was trusted in town; they ran fundraisers and charity events for those who lost everything. But then it came out that they’d been skimming off the charity donations. Now, Althea and Proctor are facing a trial and possibly serious time for this transgression. The townspeople have turned against them (Althea’s lawyer says, “the community probably wants to see a public hanging”). Lillian has care of the disgruntled teenaged girls; Viola is en route home from Chicago to lend a hand, although she is beset by problems of her own. And Joe turns up, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Althea refuses to let her daughters visit her. Lillian is losing control, particularly of Kim, the difficult child to Baby Vi’s obedient one. Viola is breaking down mid-road-trip. Joe’s past sins remain unresolved. The legacies of their parents do not rest easy. They come together in the family home, which Lillian has renovated to remove some – but not all – its painful stains; she’s also moved in her former-grandmother-in-law, just to enliven this mess of relationships.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is an emphatically character-driven novel, and these characters are wonderfully formed: a mess in all the best ways. Viola is a practicing therapist plagued by her own eating disorder and her failing marriage to a rather saintly, patient woman whom the reader really wants to see her with. Lillian’s childhood trauma has left her obsessive-compulsive and guilt-ridden – it is in part this guilt that causes her to care for the elderly Chinese woman with broken English whose grandson she’s wronged, but the friendship that results is in fact a gift. Althea’s mood is foul enough to keep her somewhat opaque, but she is also the heart of this family; just because she was the responsible eldest does not mean she’s escaped her own wounds. The novel follows the three sisters most closely, with chapters moving among their points of view. The title refers to Viola’s eating disorder, to the various literal and figurative hungers of the sisters, and beyond.

Proctor, whom we see less of – in flashbacks to the time before the arrests; in emails to his wife as they are both incarcerated – is still a lovely character, whose love of music has been a gift to his daughters, and who sends punny musical hints to Althea as a game they used to play. He at one point quotes the lyrics of Jason Isbell (whom he leaves unnamed, but I am the reader for this moment, y’all, so you know that gave me a thrill). There are other still more minor characters who make a real impact on the world Anissa Gray builds here, including Viola’s and Lillian’s respective childhood friends, Kim’s goofy stoner boyfriend, and the women Althea serves times with.

There are a few plot-level details that never especially coalesced for me. The Great Flood this small town has experienced feels like a looming matter of importance that never quite comes to life, although the long-dead mother had some comments to make about women, water, and rivers that should have connected a bit more strongly there. The crimes Althea and Proctor committed – fleecing their neighbors – are sort of neither here nor there; the plot needed them incarcerated, but it never matters much what they did. I spent some time considering this: Gray had to define their crime, of course, couldn’t just leave it unnamed; but this feels like an odd choice. It’s ethically quite off-putting, while in the grand scheme of things (murder, for example) also relatively minor (embezzlement?), and we’re left with a vague sense of the agency with which the crime was committed. It felt a little bit like Chekhov’s gun never went off. These are minor concerns, and it’s not unusual that a novel so gorgeously and richly character-driven might have some plot weaknesses, but I noticed.

The timeline of Care and Feeding is pretty tight, mostly contained within a few weeks as Althea and Proctor’s trial approaches, their sentences are set, and the immediate fallout occurs. There are flashbacks to earlier times (all the way back to the four siblings’ youth), and a final epilogue-style section set after the dust has settled. But chiefly, this novel is concerned with the quasi-locked-room situation when Lillian and Viola come together to sort out family histories and unhealed wounds. It’s about relationships, the pull of the past, the question of cycles broken or continued, and love.

I found it absorbing; I enjoyed sinking in to the lives of these women and girls, getting to know them, accompanying them. I cared, and they felt very real and immediate. If I cocked my head at the odd and somewhat unresolved crimes Althea and Proctor have committed, so be it; life is sometimes confusing in this way. As a story of regular, imperfect, but good people dealing with life’s confusions, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls was more than satisfying. Gray’s brief “Beyond the Book” essay at the back of my paperback edition tells us that Viola was a fictional character who just wouldn’t go away, who demanded her story be told. And that makes perfect sense to me; I too would follow Viola wherever she wants to take me, narratively speaking. I would read more.


Rating: 7 1/2 Snickers bars.

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