“You are one creature, on one journey, and violence marks your gait for good,” Nora Seton writes in her first novel, Che and the Calaway Girls. Nora Seton takes risks in this story, and those risks ultimately pay off, but it does make for a story that dwells deeply within its own mind. Set in Houston, Texas in hurricane season, Che and the Calaway Girls follows Julia Calaway, a middle daughter and a fashion designer for Pitti Palazzo. She is the mother of Gracie, a sometimes whiny but always compassionate nine-year-old girl embroiled in her own sense of emotional turmoil due to the divorce between Julia and her abusive ex-husband, Bobby.
Beyond the conflict between ex-spouses, Julia’s father, Mr. Calaway, who was once on death’s door, is released from an assisted living center after signing a form that prevents him from evacuating from the approaching Hurricane Che’s wrath. He is delivered into Julia’s care at her childhood home and is a lifeless husk of his former self. It is this, and the support from her sister, Lisa, a high powered lawyer in Manhattan, and the absence of their younger sister Claire, a famous artist, that heightens the swirl of discord as Hurricane Che draws closer. The storm has already flattened Guam and Cuba and throws the Gulf into a state of panic that hasn’t been seen since Katrina. Seton writes, “Che is plodding and huge, and there is something indecent about the way it sloshes its weight around the Gulf.”
The story itself is slow moving, a two step forward and one step back approach, with action breaking up frequent flashbacks to the Calaway girls’ past. The main concern is their largely affectionless childhood, as their mother was unable to show love for the girls, and the traumatic mystery that drove the family into disconnection. “Sad is a suburb. My mother never once said she hoped to see me in eternity,” Seton writes. These flashbacks and their frequency serve to show the piece’s main purpose: breaking generational curses and learning to let go.
Once again, the tone of this piece is one that lives within its own mind. It’s often cold and rife with grievances and past traumas that reach out of the gloom and take you by the throat when you’re already drowning. Conflict in this novel operates as a virtue and a vice — there is so much of it that it verges on the unbelievable at times. Surely, one family can’t be under that much strife? As the proverb goes, problems come in threes, but to the Calaways, it comes by the dozen. With the inclusion of Gracie, Julia’s daughter, and the operations of the surrounding community, much is done to break up the heavy blocks of serious tension; however, they ultimately become stressors in Julia’s life, and this stress builds to a 57-page crescendo. As a virtue, the variety of conflict is something to be marveled at. Julia and her sisters battle everything from other people, to themselves, and even the weather — and never, in that whirlwind, is there a dull moment.
Che and the Calaway Girls is an undeniably heavy story, more so than the piece itself might even believe. Through this heaviness, however, Julia’s character blossoms. In the beginning, she’s judgmental, closed off, and disconnected while also acting as a mother and trying to protect her daughter from her ex as well as her own past. By the end of the story, Julia’s been forced to take control, and she takes to it beautifully — her petals unfurl most in adversity and she plays a very empathetic role as the protector of everyone in her home, like her mother never could be.
Beyond this, Nora Seton’s writing paints vivid pictures of this environment, often coupled with sardonic humor and a quietly wise voice. This can be seen when she writes, “It’s only when you try to perfect yourself that you realize it involves a small scrap of suicide, and that the parts of you that always seemed at fault, were anyway defining.”
Overall, Che and the Calaway Girls is a book that exists wholly inside of itself but leaves you with a broader knowledge of both growth and grief. Nora Seton ends it appropriately when she writes, “But underneath was life. And I would be able to live it now. I had learned the dire secrets that kept me in a tidy box, and now I could dissolve the limits of my ability to be more.”
Che and the Calaway Girls
By Nora Seton
Regal House Publishing
Published June 29, 2021