'The Sound of Us' by Sarah Willis

In Willis' latest, a family is where you find it

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In her first three novels, Cleveland novelist Sarah Willis wrote about families whose parameters challenged the "Leave It To Beaver" stereotype.


By Sarah Willis
Berkeley. ($23.95)


The family at the heart of Willis' latest is held together by circumstance and will rather than blood. With cinematic flair, Willis keeps us reading to the very end to find out if they can stay together.

It all begins with an early morning phone call. Alice Marlowe, a single, 47-year-old interpreter for the deaf, wakes to a child's voice on the line.

It is a wrong number, but Alice keeps talking. Something is wrong, she thinks. This girl needs help.

Like many of Willis' characters, a wound of guilt impels Alice into action. Five months earlier, Alice's brother Vince was killed crossing a street in Akron. She is taunted and guided by him from beyond the grave.

Inside Alice's head, Vince's voice cheers her on as she talks this scared little 6-year-old down, discovers she has been left alone for two days, finds out where she lives and drives over to stay with her.

The girl's name is Larissa, and Alice first wins her trust before calling the police. It is a bold and improbable move, but the more you get to know Alice, the more sense it makes.

Ever since Vince died, Alice desperately has needed someone to need her, and Sampson, her cat, just isn't cutting it. Larissa, however, fits that bill nicely.

You can see where Willis is going quite early in the game. You know Alice will want to adopt Larissa.

Her mother, of course, will enter the picture and create complications.

And it's not much of a surprise when Larissa and Alice learn to communicate by sign language, creating -- here comes that title -- the sound of us.

Like Anne Tyler, whose work Willis' resembles more with each book, she manages to squeeze a certain dignity out of Alice by never judging her.

Willis also makes no judgment about whether generosity born out of guilt is true benevolence.

This latter decision, however, is ultimately what makes "The Sound of Us" such an uneasy read.

Willis' previous books were comfortable with darkness and unhappy endings. Here she has taken a different tack and delivers a happy note.

The thing is, you don't need to look at the statistics about children raised in foster care to know that it feels a little forced.

John Freeman is a freelance writer in New York.


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