A Review of
Broken Glass: A Novel
Reviewed by Cynthia Beach
The debut novel by Mary VanderGoot, Broken Glass, serves what may well be a neglected fiction niche: stories with protagonists who are aging, religious adults.
Anyone familiar with fiction craft knows the importance of conflict. Think of the prevalence of conflict as one ages. How does one relate well, but differently to their babies who, somehow, turned into adults? How does one reconcile with the inevitable challenges like widowhood or new limitations or decline?
Protagonist Maggie Barnes answers these questions with alternating aplomb and missteps.
In chapter one —that reads like a prologue—we meet a young Maggie, but in chapter two, we find a much older Maggie, a woman with a very different life. Now Maggie’s husband Ross is deceased, and she is dealing with adult children who pester her at times. They are awkward with how they care for her, and, in turn, she is awkward, too. Are there new rules for what she should say or not say?
Enter Tee, the young hired nurse. In Tee, Maggie finds a confidante, a listener with whom she can sort her personal stories—except for the one story concerning Thomas, the affair partner we meet in chapter one. Maggie knows she is leaving out that story. She concedes, “It takes a clever feint to direct attention away from the piece that doesn’t fit the puzzle.” What she doesn’t know is that she won’t always hold this secret.
I loved author Dr. Mary VanderGoot’s astute understanding of human beings: our jagged edges, our reluctant reveals, our long journey towards redemption. For example, listen to Maggie’s assessment of Tee: “She didn’t smile much….At moments in our conversation when a less genuine person might have broken into a charming smile, she only softened around the eyes.”
Someone who over-smiles may be…less genuine? That resonated. I found this Flannery O’Connor-like insight sharp and fresh.
Or take this other example where Maggie watches her grown son, a man now, from her kitchen window: “I could see the sculpting of his arm, his solid neck, and the damp golden hair in his armpit. I caught myself gazing at him. Captured by his beauty….I turned away from the window, but I felt tearful. Was I only allowed to delight in the physical beauty of my sons while they were little boys?”
Maggie also is adept at recognizing the roles her children play like how Will is the one in control and Jenna serves as his “foot soldier.” Maggie must explore and hold tightly onto whom her five children were when small to whom they became as adults. She must hold each end of their story so far—even the story of Steven, her youngest, whose venture into adulthood was too short. While Maggie may not love perfectly, she does love fiercely.
Wipf and Stock’s imprint, Resource Publications, has launched Broken Glass as the lead in The Maggie Barnes Trilogy. By email, VanderGoot explains, “The Maggie Barnes Trilogy is made up of three novels all of which deal with questions that become poignant as we grow older. I think it fair to say I am writing for the older reader, although I am happy for readers of any age.”
If the debut novel deals with examining family secrets, the second novel, slated for 2021 and entitled A Certain Slant, offers a theme that VanderGoot describes as “memory and indifference.” Then the final novel, Phantom Fathers (2022), returns to husband Ross’s story and travels the roads of family shame and forgiveness.
As a Princeton-educated psychotherapist and Calvin psychology professor, VanderGoot puts a goodly amount of soul knowledge into her novel. She gets people.
While Broken Glass is a debut novel, VanderGoot has published before. After Freedom: How Boomers Pursued Freedom, Questioned Virtue, and Still Search for Meaning (Wipf & Stock, 2012) was VanderGoot’s book that examines the Boomers.
As a confessional novel, Mary VanderGoot’s Broken Glass relies heavily on “telling,” which at first I had to work to receive. But a novel whose character contends with the challenges of aging and long-term family dynamics? I found myself invested in this debut novel with its astute human observations. Strong curiosity propelled me to its final word.