“How We Came To Be,” by Johnnie Bernhard

Johnnie Bernhard

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Forget the Father Knows Best clichés of the 1950s—they are so yesterday. Set in contemporary Houston and Austin, How We Came To Be (Texas Review Press, 2018) is a witty, insightful study of the forging of a twenty-first century family. A finalist in the 2017 International Faulkner-Wisdom Competition, the novel was named a “Must Read” by Southern Writers Magazine and named by Deep South Magazine as part of its 2018 Summer Reading List.

Fifty-year-old Karen Anders, a divorced high school English teacher, adopts her brother’s child Tiffany after her mother abandons her and her father dies unexpectedly. The novel skips over the early years and dives right in as Tiffany leaves for college in Austin. Karen still has her dog and cat, but without Tiffany to care for, Karen feels hollowed out. Her life has revolved around this one relationship since her divorce. Aware of the dangers yet unable to stop, she is drinking too much wine to fill the empty hours. She recognizes her own loneliness in others:

I knew my students understood loneliness. It was written on their faces. Broken families, fickle friends, cruel first loves—they knew loneliness better than a middle-aged adult who survives by simply turning the heart off and self-medicating, numbing what is regrettably lost in our youth.

Trying to build a new life as an empty-nester, Karen barhops with two supportive, also-single colleagues, Kelly and Carl. It’s the start of a social life.

Exacerbating Karen’s loneliness, Tiffany rarely answers her phone. Karen hopes it’s because her niece is busy with classes and friends, but over Thanksgiving holiday, the young woman arrives “looking like Death itself.” She asks Karen to obtain a prescription for Adderall for her so she can concentrate in class and feel confident in social situations, just enough to get her through finals. Tiffany makes clear that if Karen refuses, she intends to keep taking a friend’s prescription illegally.

An elderly neighbor also becomes an important part of Karen’s life: Leona Supak, a WWII Hungarian refugee who lost her entire family in the war. Although Leona has lived across the street for years, the two have never connected except through Leona’s admonitions that Karen should not let her pets run into other people’s yards. Then one morning Tiffany says she has a job that will require her to work over Christmas. Soon afterward, heartsick and hungover, Karen is outside in a stained bathrobe. Leona scolds her for not respecting herself, for letting herself go. When Karen bursts into tears, Leona invites her inside for cinnamon rolls and a friendship begins. They share Christmas together with Kelly and Carl, and Leona opens up about her experiences as a child abandoned in war time. In their newfound closeness, Leona scolds Karen the way a mother would when she is drunk and misbehaving:

You think you know what life is. You think you know what’s it’s worth. Your people don’t get sprinkles on their chocolate donuts, and the world is ending. Try being hungry when there’s no food to be had or thirsty and the only water is mingled with blood and dung. Grow up and face what’s in front of you instead of drinking and crying.

When Karen drives to Austin for New Year’s, she meets Tiffany at the unlikely establishment where she works, Ink & Juice, where you can drink carrot juice while you get tattooed. Karen barely recognizes her niece, who has lost weight and gotten a buzz haircut. Karen takes an immediate dislike to Tiffany’s boyfriend Jared, who owns the business. But the worst is yet to come: Tiffany is pregnant—and Jared leaves bruises on her arm. Karen knows she must intervene—but how?—when her niece doesn’t want to listen to her.

Everything in Austin is not bad. It’s where Karen meets Matt and tentatively begins a friendship that may grow into something substantial. To tell more would spoil the fun you’ll have watching how this unlikely, damaged group of people heal themselves. Suffice it to say, Karen’s witty, caring voice will transport you through the pages to a more than satisfactory resolution.

How We Came To Be is Johnnie Bernhard’s second novel. Her first, A Good Girl, received finalist recognition in the 2015 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition and was nominated for the 2018 PEN/Robert Bingham Prize. Bernhard is a former English teacher and journalist. Her works have appeared in many publications, including Houston Style Magazine, The Mississippi Press, The Texas Review, and Southern Writers Magazine.

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