“The Favorite Daughter,” by Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry

Reviewed by Becca Spence Dobias

The Favorite Daughter begins with a shocking inciting incident—one that immediately hooks readers. After laying this exciting groundwork, however, the writing begins to feel predictable. The main character, Colleen, feels like someone we’ve read before—the cynical New Yorker, burned by betrayal, commitment-phobic, and married to her work. When news of her father’s memory loss arrives from her home in South Carolina, and she returns reluctantly, this place too feels tired, relying heavily on stock images of the South—from numerous mentions of Spanish moss to the small town where even the police officer who pulls Colleen over is an old friend from high school.

The details build, though, through repetition and subtle specificity. The pluff mud and the johnboat, the river on which the family home is situated, through their repeated mention, work their way into readers’ subconsciouses, until we feel we too can smell the pluff mud and hear the river’s call to untie the johnboat. The pluff mud. The johnboat. The river. The pluff mud. The johnboat. The river. Like they have been in Colleen’s life, these words are repeated. This is a brilliant move on Callahan Henry’s part, as it mimics the way place situates itself in the mind—how home can at once be the vague stereotypical outline that outsiders see, and also be achingly distinct, the finer details truly shaping a familiar place.

At times, Callahan Henry’s dialogue feels forced. Her characters speak of things they “must” do often, and their speech comes across as stilted and unrealistic for young adults. At other times, however, the characters speak with surprising depth and truth. Colleen, for example, reaches impressive personal realizations, most notably when she comes to understand that other people’s betrayals of her were about them rather than about something broken in herself.

The relationship between sisters Colleen and Hallie, too, is anything but predictable. Hallie’s initial betrayal would suggest a dramatic, climactic forgiveness. The sisters repair their relationship in subtle, quiet ways over the course of the novel, however. Their healing is not linear. At times, one or the other will become hurt and closed off before reconciling yet again—a move that echoes the real, ever-unfolding complexities of families.

Unfortunately, Callahan Henry does not get past stereotypes when the story moves to Ireland. This part of the novel, though gorgeous writing, stays stuck on “a lush land, of every shade of green,” “misty rain,” thatched roofs, and pubs where patrons are like family. I have faith that had the Emerald Isle featured more prominently in the novel, or had Callahan Henry had more space to write about the country (the book is already 346 pages), small, repetitive details would have set the small town in County Clare apart from Irish cliches, too, and so I forgive her providing just enough imagery for this segment of plot to move forward. The plot itself, with its unexpected turns, makes up for it.

Ultimately this novel is about the unreliability and importance of memory, a point nailed home by the quotes beginning each chapter from sources including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oscar Wilde. In this goal, Callahan Henry succeeds. Not only do readers agonize over the slipping memories of Gavin Donohue and latch onto his children’s efforts to preserve them, but they question the veracity of their own remembrances and feel gratitude for the meaning that recollected stories give their lives.

The Favorite Daughter is a simple, pleasurable read whose impact, despite its imperfections, makes it well worthwhile.

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