The Second Mother: Jenny Milchman’s New Suspense Novel
Julie and her Dog Seek a Fresh Start on a Distant Maine Island
By Krista Nadeau
“I know something about escape. It don’t always work out like you want it to.”
With those words, her Uncle Ted warns Julie Weathers—the heroine of Jenny Milchman’s new psychological suspense thriller, The Second Mother—against moving to a remote island off the coast of Maine. But Julie has already taken a teaching position in a one-room school on the fictional Mercy Island. There she hopes to conquer her demons—grief over the loss of her young daughter, a failed marriage, a powerful alcohol dependency, and the sense she’s lingered too long in limbo in her small hometown in upstate New York. She brings only one companion on this adventure: her giant, intelligent, sensitive, and loyal dog, Depot, who proves to be almost as much a main character in this novel as Julie is.
For the reader, The Second Mother provides an escape of its own—of the “forget about the virus for a while” variety. Julie has to contend with a challenging Gothic blend of spooky houses, thick fogs, choppy waters, deep woods, black-outs, and prying eyes. While seemingly welcomed by the island community, including one handsome love interest, Julie soon finds herself bedeviled by frenemies, troubled youths, malevolent locals, and most of all, by a meddling dowager, who rules this “speck of land that sits eight miles out to sea” with an elderly but iron hand. With Depot’s help, Julie confronts all challenges with admirable courage and hope, even while in the midst of her own life-and-death struggle for sobriety and inner peace.
What gives this page-turner extra meaning is the ongoing news of our real world, which forms a compelling backdrop to the fiction. We have the novels’ themes very much on our minds these days: the growing specter of climate change, which threatens not just the lobster industry but virtually all aspects of life as we know it; the dynamics between powerful insiders and vulnerable outsiders; and the pros and cons of isolation.
And while the important national debate heats up about reopening schools, this novel reminds us of the life-changing effect a good teacher can have. Julie develops a fierce loyalty towards the children in her classroom, the island’s 20 or so school-aged kids. They are the future, and we see how she provides to them invaluable and enriching new perspectives, ideas, and opportunities. Even while healing herself, she encourages, affirms, and nurtures them, taking the time to really see and get to know them as individuals, as they step out of their family realms and into the wider world. It takes nothing away from parental roles and responsibilities to acknowledge, as the novel does, how much we owe our gifted teachers.
The Second Mother also has insight into the complexities of friendship. Dogs may be perfect, but people are not perfect, and friendships are not perfect—and yet, as we know, essential. The book gets right this often confusing and maddening muddle of positive and negative aspects of people and relationships. In one scene, Julie and her friend Ellie are having an angry, ugly argument, going at each other about weaknesses, lies, manipulations, and dark dealings. In the middle, the clouds of weighty antagonism lift for a few seconds, when Julie accidentally mentions her growing love for their mutual friend Callum, a love Ellie had hoped would blossom and had helped to foster. Pausing in surprise and happiness, Ellie “looked at her and asked, ‘Really?’ Julie whispered back, ‘I think so.’ Ellie gave her a small smile.” Then it was back to their terrible fight. People can still want what’s best for each other and find true connection, even while being deeply flawed and impossibly at odds.
Like all novels, The Second Mother spins out of long literary traditions—about troubled young women taking jobs in remote locations, about attempts to perpetuate family dynasties, and about overly controlling parental figures. (As an example of that last tradition, the old folk tale Rapunzel figures in The Second Mother as a story within a story.) These resonances aside, for Mainers the distinctive, overarching fun of this enjoyable suspense novel is its place–how it paints its eternal, comforting, majestic island setting. Looking out at the sea, Julie realizes she is taking in “the same view she would’ve seen a hundred years ago. A thousand.” And on a walk together along the shore, Ellie shares with Julie a memory: “My mother used to say that the ocean was just like the sky. . . That they’re mirrors of each other—one blue when the other one is, or gray, or storm-driven—and that we lived in the best place on earth because the top and the bottom always matched, up and down, every day.” It’s a stabilizing thought, in times that are all about needing to adapt and adjust, to deal with troubling changes and constant uncertainties.
In writing The Second Mother, author Jenny Milchman drew on positive experiences and memories of family summer vacations spent in Maine, many on Monhegan Island, a place that is near and dear to her heart. Now living in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Maine continues to be a destination point for her and her family.
Jenny knew she wanted to be a writer and planned to graduate with a degree in Creative Writing and Literature, but attending to practicality, she decided to double major in psychology. Jenny began her education at Bard College before transferring to Barnard College, where she graduated with a BA degree with a combined major in Literature and Psychology. For the next decade, Jenny worked as a child psychotherapist at a rural outpatient clinic. But she kept wanting to write, and she eventually switched gears to pursue a career as a writer. Now she has a little building in her backyard that has electricity, and it’s there she brings her stories to life. “The writing comes easily; it’s the editing that is hard,” said Jenny.
To date she has published five books and several short stories. Her debut book, Cover of Snow (2013), took 13 years to get published. When it finally came out, it made the USA Today Bestseller list and was the winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her other books are Ruin Falls (2014), As Night Falls (2015), and Wicked River (2018). To promote the first three books, her husband and their children accompanied her on epic road trips to visit bookstores, libraries, book clubs, and schools around the country. On these odysseys, her husband worked remotely, and they car-schooled their two children, while visiting U.S. landmarks whenever they could.
Of the dangers that her characters face, Jenny said they are similar to ones that any of us could encounter in real life. Most of us have been battered by life in one way or another or have been dealt some obstacles and difficulties. In her books, characters take those challenges, confront or grapple with them, grow, and, as best they can, respond with resiliency. The books aim to “give a sense of empowerment,” Jenny said, with characters and situations that “are easy to relate to real life.”
In 2010, Jenny founded Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and it’s intended to inspire kids to read. The pilot program launched in Johnstown, New York, at a bookstore called Mysteries on Main. The hope is to make this a nationwide program. It is a true labor of her heart, and together with the help of talented book lovers, authors, booksellers and other advocates, this program is celebrated by over 800 bookstores in all 50 states.
The Second Mother is due on shelves August 18, 2020.
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