Lay It On My Heart is a rare, lovely novel. It is about, and from the point of view of, a teenage girl, yet maturely and beautiful written for grownups. It is about and set in a rural Kentucky community populated mostly by Evangelical Christians, but written with such sensitivity that any reader could relate. It’s about the breakdown of a family and the coming-of-age of an individual, and it eschews all clichés about both.
Everyone in East Winder, Kentucky, knows Charmaine Peake, an only child who has just turned 13. She lives with her impatient, long-suffering mother Phoebe, while her father, David, a scion of a religious family who thinks of himself as a prophet, drops out of modern life to live on faith. When a bad case of poison ivy, exacerbated by fasting and Biblical thinking, lands him in the hospital, he and his family have to confront the fine line between dedication and delusion.
With no money, Charmaine and her mother rent out their house and move to a cramped, remote trailer-cabin. Phoebe struggles to string together enough substitute teaching jobs to keep the bill collectors at bay and buy an occasional McDonald’s hamburger for herself and the daughter who feels increasingly alien just when she needs her most. Meanwhile, Charmaine must navigate the treacheries of adolescence—demanding teachers, profane classmates, and a messy, painful, ever-changing body that mirrors her increasingly fraught relationship with her mother—and at the same time wrestle with existential questions about her father and her faith.
When Charmaine’s pious but practical grandma falls ill and her beloved black cat disappears, the reader wonders how much farther she has to fall, and whether, in her position, anyone would be able to get back up.
In a different kind of novel, Charmaine would find a portal to another dimension or, previously dormant inside her, a hidden magical talent. Almost certainly a boy who appreciates her quirky intelligence would help her cope. Lay It On My Heart provides its narrator with no such crutch. Charmaine’s romantic prospects include an older disabled boy with a foul mouth and a condescending missionary’s son, and both teach her less about love than lust, its gritty, compelling, but complicated underside.
With effort, Charmaine begins to realize what she can control, and what resources, inner and outer, she can draw on: new friends, a new perspective on the universe, and a deeper respect for her own capacity as a resilient, independent human being. As well as any book in recent memory, Lay It On My Heart explores the way that adolescence is one long paradox, as embodied in the word “cleave”:
I thought I understood the meaning of the word, which can be ‘to sever’ just as much as ‘to cling,’ a perfect word that contains its opposite, but now I understand something else: that it can mean both of these things at the same time.
Do you like coming-of-age stories?