The plot centers around modern day psychology student, Sonia, who tries to figure out her present by poring through her family’s past. She pays visits to her parents, a tenuous, fragile alliance damaged by her father’s Vietnam War experience. Her mother’s attic trunk contains “unexpected gifts” for Sonia–journals written by her ancestors. Each journal entry tells that particular relative’s story against the backdrop of the changing times they try to navigate. The characters each have a distinct, recognizable voice and style which keeps the changes in place and time flowing nicely.
Sonia begins to see a pattern in some of the mistakes and traits of her family carrying forward in her present life. For instance, Tony, her great grandfather, spends most of his married life mistreating and neglecting his wife, Daria, and daughter, Rose. Knowledge of their toxic relationship helps Sonia face her own dysfunctional relationship with narcissistic “rock star” boyfriend, Mike. In the meantime, she meets a new friend, Harry, who is clearly a good choice for her. The reader is kept wondering throughout the novel if she will break the self-destructive pattern that has plagued the female relatives that have come before her.
The depictions of the times represented are vivid and detailed. Readers will find themselves working inside the Ford Factory, standing in the immigration line at Ellis Island, attending Woodstock, campaigning around the country for women’s suffrage and against poverty, and fighting in Vietnam.
This is great-grandfather Tony’s first impression of Ellis Island: “I had to close my eyes while we sat on our suitcases. The main hall at Ellis Island was too ghastly to face. All around us hung the consistent din of babies crying, boots shuffling, the thud of suitcases being repositioned on the floor, and always the unidentifiable languages.”
In Sonia’s great aunt Adriana’s journal, she describes the heartbreaking poverty her aunt encounters while working with Eleanor Roosevelt and her fight for justice: “In Chicago, we stopped at the home of a tubercular mother. Her torn housedress was pinned together haphazardly, her greasy hair like an oil slick on the road and her black, hallowed eyes tracking through me as if I weren’t really there asking questions. When I requested a chance to see their bedroom, I noticed her picking unconsciously at bedbug bites on her arms before nodding yes.”
Unexpected Gifts is a well-written novel with engaging, interesting characters. It will particularly appeal to people interested in the historic events and times covered, but it will also interest a broader range of readers.