When I added Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert to the TBR, I did so because it looked like fun. Then I started reading it and realized it was far more serious than that. I almost set it aside for the moment because I wasn't really in the mood for serious, but Anabelle's voice compelled me and kept me going, and I'm so glad it did because this is a truly good book.
Annabelle's mother is a hoarder. The family never uses that word, but they live the reality and it's getting worse every day. When a pile of newspapers falls on Annabelle's sister Leslie at breakfast, she confesses to Annabelle that she keeps a file of newspaper clippings about dead bodies found under piles of junk. Their father finds the file and leaves for a school trip after a furious fight with an ultimatum: clean the house out or he's filing for divorce and taking the kids. Leslie, feeling as though it will be her fault if their family breaks up, does the one thing none of them ever do. She calls their grandmother. Grandma Nora shows up to fix things. Grandma Nora is practical and knows how to clean, but her history with her daughter and her ruthless treatment of her mental illness make life in Annabelle's home harder rather than easier. Amidst all this Annabelle is desperate to keep her friend from finding out her family's secret shame. Her summer starts to look like a perfect storm of disaster.
Annabelle's voice was what kept me hooked even though I was not all that sure I wanted to keep reading a book about a parent with such a daunting mental illness and that was impossible for the kids to escape. Lambert nailed Annabelle's voice. It is genuine 12 year old: sassy, confused, desperate, selfish, yearning, full of both anxiety and hope. Lambert made this truly Annabelle's story and not the story of the mother told through her daughter's eyes. This makes it absolutely perfect for its target audience. Any MG reader is going to be able to empathize with Annabelle's many plights even if they don't share her exact experience. This is a story that is all about character and relationships. Annabelle's journey is an important one, and it is formed by her relationships to those around her. As an offshoot of her mother's condition, Annabelle is developing some habits of her own that are not the most healthy. What I really liked about this is that how all the siblings (Annabelle has an older brother too) deal with their mother's hoarding in different way,s and they all exhibit signs of developing their own neurosis as a result. What I loved about this is how all three of them come to realize that, even if they don't put it in those terms, and the bond between the three of them is strengthened and grows. I love good sibling stories and this is an excellent one. The dynamics between the three are realistic. They have squabbles and petty arguments, but they deeply love and care for each other too.
There is an intergenerational aspect Lambert handles with a deft touch too. Annabelle is desperate not to become her mother. Grandma Nora and the mom have a fraught relationship that is plagued by years of resentments and wrongs. Annabelle is an age where she can begin to kind of understand that. The adults share some things with her that gives her a little more insight. Annabelle begins to see how broken everyone around her is and that perfection is unattainable. It is done incredibly well and in a way that a 12 year old would process and understand. Watching her mother and grandmother, Annabelle learns a lot about the damage you can do to the people you love the most. Annabelle's dad, who is MIA for the majority of the novel causing his kids no end of stress and hurt, adds another rich layer to this. Even though he is not there, he is felt in his absence. The resolution of this was nicely done and I particularly appreciated the interactions between Anabelle's dad and her older brother.
The final relational aspect of the story is in Annabelle's relationships with her friends and the boy she has a crush on. Annabelle has a list of rules that she follows to make sure NO ONE finds out about her home life. She doesn't want everyone at school to know. There is a scene where all of her friends are complaining about her parents where she observes that she and one other girl never join in the complaining. Because it is the kids who truly have something to complain about who stay silent. She wonders what the other girl is hiding. I loved this moment of insight from her, especially as it is surrounded by moments where she is thinking only of herself. It is so perfectly middle schooler. The dramas and situations that arise with Annabelle's friends through the story are also realistic and resolved in a way that is both satisfying and believable.
I think this is a wonderful book for any upper elementary or middle school library to include in its collection. It will appeal to the multitude of readers who like realistic fiction. It excels in having a specific subject matter but being a universal story.