Lay It on My Heart

Lay It on My Heart

3.5 4
by Angela Pneuman

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It's summer in Kentucky, the low ceiling of August pressing down on Charmaine Peake and the town of East Winder. Charmaine and her mother get along better with a room between them, but they've been forced by circumstances to relocate to a tiny trailer by the river. The last of a line of local holy men, Charmaine's father has turned from prophet to patient, his


It's summer in Kentucky, the low ceiling of August pressing down on Charmaine Peake and the town of East Winder. Charmaine and her mother get along better with a room between them, but they've been forced by circumstances to relocate to a tiny trailer by the river. The last of a line of local holy men, Charmaine's father has turned from prophet to patient, his revelation lost in the clarifying haze of medication. Her sure-minded grandmother has suffered a stroke. At church, where she has always felt most certain, Charmaine is tested when she uncovers that her archrival, a sanctimonious missionary kid, carries a dark, confusing secret. Suddenly her life can be sorted into what she wishes she knew and what she wishes she didn't.

A moving, hilarious portrait of mothers and daughters, Lay It on My Heart brings us into the heart of a family weathering the toughest patch of their lives. But most of all, it marks out the seemingly unbearable realities of growing up, the strength that comes from finding real friendship, and the power of discovering—and accepting—who you are.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pneuman uses potent prose in her intimate and intense debut novel about a most difficult month in the life of a 13-year-old girl in rural Kentucky. Charmaine Peake's grandfather was a famous evangelical, her father is a prophet, and the day-to-day life she leads with her parents is governed by religion. When her father suffers a mental break upon returning from a year in the Holy Land, the result is that Charmaine and her mother must move into a trailer by the river and rent out the family home to pay for his in-patient care. Meanwhile, Charmaine's physical maturation speeds up, and at her new school, she encounters others her age whose lives are not wholly dictated by their faith. Regular teenage angst is magnified by her attempts to live up to her father's ideals, and complicated by living in cramped quarters on a dime with a long-suffering mother. The author is very effective with her first-person narrative; readers will come to intimately inhabit Charmaine's point of view. (July)
From the Publisher

"Biting yet optimistic, this first novel will knock you sideways with its Southern charm and quiet humanity." --O, The Oprah Magazine

"Charmaine Peake is struggling: with her mentally ill father, her difficult mother, the boy on the bus, her homemade purse and her relationship with God. Pneuman captures the voice of adolescence and the uncertainty of faith in this endearing novel."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[A] marvelous dark and comic debut novel...Pneuman is a master of dark comedy, and the grimmer the material, the funnier it becomes in her twisted but capable hands. Like her literary ancestor, Flannery O'Connor, she shows how myopic allegedly religious people can be, but she doesn't take cheap shots at religion either.” –San Francisco Chronicle

"An affecting coming-of-age story...Pneuman's sharp, insightful writing reveals the myriad challenges life can throw in a young girl's path." --Marin Independent Journal

"Pneuman rarely allows slack in this taut storyline...Pneuman’s treatment of the ‘reality,’ or lack thereof, of divine communication is lovely and not in the least bit condescending. Readers are left to make their own judgments." --Kansas City Star

"Pneuman’s evocation of Charmaine and her surroundings is absolute and gripping, and her novel will please any lover of good fiction, especially those with a religious background and a sense of humor."  -- Amber Peckham, Booklist

"Both a compassionate and uncompromising coming-of-age tale."  -- Kirkus Reviews

"Pneuman uses potent prose in her intimate and intense debut novel." --Publishers Weekly

"I loved Lay It on My Heart. Angela Pneuman has written a funny and moving coming-of-age novel that explores the mysteries of faith and family with uncommon grace and wry wisdom." -- Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers

"You will stay up all night reading this brilliant and devastating novel the way you might have with a new best friend in junior high—one whose revelations thrilled and terrified you, and whose raw, hard-earned wisdom remade the way you saw the world. It evokes the genius of Angela Pneuman's canonical progenitors:  Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy.  Lay It on My Heart is a gorgeous, riveting, and unforgettable book." -- Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge and How to Breathe Underwater

"At the center of this stunning first novel is a family in crisis, a story that in Angela Pneuman's incredibly capable hands is both utterly original and nearly mythic in its powerful universality. A girl on the brink of adolescence, the only child of evangelists living in a small Kentucky town, watches the unraveling of her father's faith and her parents' marriage and discovers, in her necessary efforts to escape the attentions of her troubled mother, the dangers and promises of the secular world."—Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, Songs Without Words, and Swim Back to Me

“At stake in this must-read novel is the sanity of a modern-day prophet, the state of his God-ordained marriage, and, most of all, the painful coming-of-age of his daughter—our wise, perceptive narrator—in the evangelical territory of the rural South. Angela Pneuman brings searing psychological insight to the conflicts that draw people to extreme faith, keep them there, or force them to emerge—dazed, blinking and giving thanks. A profoundly moving, deeply compassionate, wickedly funny book.”—Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son

"Lay It On My Heart is a lovely book fully steeped in the quirks and growing pains of the changing South. With the biting humor of Flannery O'Connor and the empathic ear of Ellen Gilchrist, Pneuman creates characters who come alive off the page to fully pull you into their lives. A subtle, absorbing, funny portrait of the faith it takes to come of age and to love with grace from a masterful young writer." —Katie Crouch, New York Times bestselling author of Girls in Trucks and Abroad

“I know the voices of southern girls, and when they sing true, my heart expands.  Angela Pneuman is a flute.  She’s let the Big Breath blow through her to create a force of nature named Charmaine Peake, who then lets the spirit blow through her to tell a story about mothers and daughters and fathers, and how we all get lost, and how we might get found--or found-out, and how, ultimately, it's the courage to bear one another’s vulnerability that can save us.  When I finished this book, I wanted to fold the narrator and the novelist into my arms, and tell them: what stellar gifts you are!" --Rebecca Wells, author, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood; Ya-Yas in Bloom; Little Altars Everywhere and  The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

"Angela Pneuman has the voice I have been waiting for: sure and graceful, earthy and edgy, heartbreaking and hopeful. It is this wholly unique voice, bolstered by wicked humor and a keen sense of character, that drives so deep into Flannery O’Connor’s Christ-haunted South. I feel nothing short of evangelical about this powerful debut; you’ll want LAY IT ON MY HEART on your 'keep forever' shelf." -- Joshilyn Jackson, bestselling author of Gods in Alabama, Someone Else’s Love Story, and others

Kirkus Reviews
Pneuman’s latest raises a tantalizing question about a 21st-century man of faith: How do you know if he's a prophet of God or just in need of some lithium?Thirteen-year-old Charmaine lives comfortably in East Winder, Kentucky, a town notable for its churches, its seminary and the evangelical legacy of Custer Peake, Charmaine’s grandfather. Her father, David, is a prophet making a living writing spiritual tracts on fasting and ceaseless praying. That is, he was until last year, when he gave up his job to “live on faith alone” (with his mother, Daze, paying the mortgage and his wife, Phoebe, taking in sewing). Now he's back from a monthlong trip to the Holy Land, and Charmaine, Phoebe and Daze are hoping he'll return to work. Instead, arriving in robe and sandals, he goes into seclusion at the trailer he keeps down by the river. A few days later, he’s found wandering about naked and burned, from taking a bath in bleach. While he’s recuperating at a mental facility, Phoebe and Charmaine move into the trailer and rent their house to a family of sanctimonious missionaries. This is an inopportune time for Charmaine’s family to fall apart: She’s just starting middle school, her breasts have become embarrassingly large, and she has to ride the school bus with the country kids, who smoke and swear and don’t live in the light of the Lord. Charmaine wishes her story would end like A Wrinkle in Time— the daughter’s love rescues the father who disappears. Now on heavy medication, David no longer hears God. What does this mean for Phoebe, who has lived according to his visions, or for Charmaine, who believed her father anointed by God, not manic-depressive? In the narrative voice of a 13-year-old girl, Pneuman raises timeless questions about faith, sacrifice and parental folly.Both a compassionate and uncompromising coming-of-age tale.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

My mother and I get along better with a room or two between us. The way she’s humming now, to herself, is the kind of thing that would make me crazy up close. But there’s something separate and free about the fact that she doesn’t know I’m listening, like she’d be doing this same thing if I didn’t exist, or if I was someone else’s daughter she knew only from church or the IGA. She breaks into a soft, nervous soprano. “My Favorite Things.” The words lilt over the opening and closing of her dresser drawers, over the sound of Mayor James’s lawnmower next door approaching and retreating like something that can’t make up its mind.
   It’s August, hot, and I’m waiting in the foyer on the bottommost stair, trying to catch the breeze from the window.
   “Charmaine?” my mother calls now from the bedroom, breaking off the song. She likes to exaggerate the French pronunciation of my name, for fun, in a way that pains me: Shah-hah-mehnn. “Come help me dress,” she says. “I have something to share with you.”
   In the bedroom I find her pulling her beige half-slip over her head, letter from my father in one hand. The international mail was so slow that it didn’t arrive until just this afternoon, as we’re about to head out to collect him from the Bluegrass Airport.
   “We’re not French,” I say.
   “We’re a little bit French,” she says, speaking through the thin polyester fabric. “Maybe.”
   She shrugs the slip down past her shoulders and bra, settles the elastic at her waist, and flaps the letter at the bed, where our black cat, Titus, sniffs at the airmail envelope. “Your father’s had new revelation,” she says.
   I perch on the bed and study the Jerusalem postmark. God’s own city. Where my father, a man after God’s own heart, a prophet, has spent the past month. Prophecy is the rarest of spiritual gifts. Usually it involves God telling my father what kinds of things to bring to people’s attention, but sometimes it involves God telling him what to do. Like visit the Holy Land. Or before that, take a year’s leave from The Good Word Press, where he writes up his prophecy, so that we can live, as we’ve been doing since last summer, on faith alone.
   “What kind of revelation?” I say carefully.
   My mother is frowning into the grainy mirror over the dresser, eyeing the tiny roll of loose skin that spills over the waistband of her slip.
   “Phoebe,” I say. “A revelation like to live on faith alone?”
   “Let’s hope not,” she says. “Charmaine. I think we’re done living on faith alone. It’s exhausting. Look here. Never forget to draw in the muscles, see? See?” She waves her arms until I look, then sucks in her stomach, pointing at the way the loose skin disappears. “Then you’ll never need a girdle. A project, he calls it, which sounds practical. If I had to guess, I’d say your father’s starting a new series of articles. About our year, maybe, or his trip. Maybe he’ll even write a book.” She steps into the bottom half of a cornflower blue suit she sewed herself. Bespoke is what she calls it, if anyone asks.
   Inside the airmail envelope is a postcard made out to me. It shows a tall, thin boulder rising from a faded landscape of rock, standing craggy and pale against blue, blue sky above an even deeper blue sea below. The Dead Sea. Which is really a lake, my father explains on the back, underneath which, quite possibly, lie the ruined, sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The boulder is supposed to be Lot’s disobedient, unfortunate wife. That’s all the note says. I flip the card back over and study the picture, wishing I could tell if this particular choice has anything to do with his revelation. Lot’s wife. One way you can look at the boulder makes her seem stuck in mid-motion, like she’s trying to move forward and turn back all at the same time. The other way makes her look like she’s hunched into herself, maybe under a shawl, watching her home disappear under a merciless rain of fire.
   Phoebe adjusts the skirt and squares her shoulders. She studies me with a serious, confiding tilt to her head, which usually means she’s about to share something she’ll want to stay just between us. Like her secret tailoring jobs that have kept us in peanut butter for the past year, which my father never thinks to question. Or how she has it on good authority that my grandmother, Daze, thinks my father married down. Since my father’s been away, I’m beginning to wonder if all information can be sorted into what I wish I knew and what I wish I didn’t.
   “Listen,” Phoebe begins, but I don’t want to. I scoop up Titus and jiggle him in Phoebe’s direction until he relaxes into my arms and starts to purr.
   “I’m a fat black kitty,” I say from behind his soft head.
   Phoebe sighs and pinches the pads of Titus’s foot. “Look at these little black beans,” she says in her half-scornful, half-babyish cat-talking voice. By the time I let him down and stand up, she’s already on to something else, giving me the once-over. “What’s that you’re wearing?”
   It’s a brown dress, one that Daze bought me.
   “Where’s the pretty white one I made for summer?” Phoebe says, pouting.
   I shrug. I’m not about to tell her how tight it’s gotten in the chest, how the roomier brown one does a better job hiding the burdensome evidence of my first period, too — the awful belt, the safety pins, the cotton pad thick as my forearm. In 1989 you can’t even buy pads for a belt anymore, but Phoebe found a year’s supply at a closeout sale. Fifty cents a box. And if I reminded her of any of this now, I’d have to hear the words your breasts again, and your flow, whispered at me in her best private voice.
Outside, the sky is a low, humid ceiling. Everything under it is muddled with heat. We head north out of town, past the campus of the East Winder Seminary, past the retirement home named after my grandfather, the famous evangelist Custer Peake. Daze, his widow, lives there now. We pass the tree streets — Elm, Maple, Walnut — that dead-end at the seminary’s neglected athletic field. On a hill in that field stands our huge water tower with the light-up electric cross on top. Underneath that tower, before I was born, Custer Peake led more than four hundred people to the Lord in one of the world’s largest spontaneous revivals. It went on for two weeks. People stood or sat or camped, even, listening to my grandfather over the PA system someone rigged up on day three. They came from all over, even from other states, once the word got out. It made the papers. It made the television news in Lexington and Louisville, both. On day six, my father came home from college in Ohio to see what all the fuss was about, and on day ten, as the sun set, my grandfather sent him to meet a delivery truck from Clay’s Corner carrying two hundred loaves of Wonder Bread for communion. That’s when my father spotted her. A petite girl, standing at the edge of the crowd wearing a sun hat and cutoff dungaree shorts and the kind of halter top frowned upon in East Winder. She raised an eyebrow at him like she was waiting for something, like he’d already spoken to her and she hadn’t quite caught it all. Right then and there, before he even knew her name, the Lord laid Phoebe on my father’s heart as the woman he was supposed to marry.

Meet the Author

ANGELA PNEUMAN, raised in Kentucky, is a former Stegner Fellow and teaches fiction writing at Stanford University. Her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her widely praised story collection, Home Remedies, was hailed as “call[ing] to mind Alice Munro” by the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Chicago and in the Bay Area of California.

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Lay It on My Heart 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Livanlearn More than 1 year ago
It was a good story, yet, not one of the best I have read this summer. Just ok, for me. I was really expecting something a little different, even though I read reviews before buying it. I am sorry I can't say definitely "read it". It would depend on a readers interests, when looking for a book. It made me feel really sorry for the teenage girl because her mother treated her as a friend, instead of child & the grandmother did not help the girl. The father figure was just too crazy for anyone to want to follow..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I came upon this gem of a novel based on a recommendation from a store team member and I am glad I listened to her advice. This novel takes place in an almost cloistered evangelical community in Kentucky. The story revolves around the challenges faced by the 13 year old protagonist Charmaine and the struggles she faces dealing with her mentally ill father, her emotionally needy mother, and the drama all of us face enduring the special hell that is middle school. Over the course of one month in her life Charmaine navigates through the trials and tribulations of struggles with her faith, the complexity of the mother/daughter relationship, and the challenges inherent in her physical maturation and consciousness of her own sexuality. Charmaine's story doesn't have a pat, simplistic ending as she comes to a realization that her ideas of her faith, family, and herself have all changed in the course of 4 weeks. The novel is also populated by some memorable characters--the creepy Dr. Osborne, the frightening but ultimately vulnerable Cecil Grimes, and Charmaine's exasperated grandmother Daze. The story brought me back to the fear and confusion of middle school and the moment in time when I realized my parents were "just people" in addition to the central role they had in my life. The story is a quick read--I read it in one sitting--and was thoroughly enjoyable. I recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful, tender story! I loved it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did not like this book at all