Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thicker Than Blood by Jan English Leary

Thicker Than Blood by Jan English Leary details the turbulent life of Andrea, a thirty-eight-year-old, single, white woman, who adopts Pearl, an African-American child abandoned at a Chicago church. Andrea is sure that her experience settling refugee families will help her handle the challenge of the adoption. As the novel shifts in time through the first nineteen years of Pearl’s life following multiple viewpoints, the reader sees the challenges of motherhood, racial identity, economics, and idealism.

Leary’s use of food and eating as a coping mechanism, a connection, and a way of seeing people is insightful. Pearl’s love of food and her increasing girth show rather than tell of Pearl’s difficulties. Leary also demonstrates how the families Andrea assists use food to assimilate while colorful, multicultural restaurants reflect the diversity of Andrea and Pearl’s neighborhood. The Thanksgiving dinner chapter skillfully allows the reader to get to know the members of Andrea’s extended family. Watching as Andrea’s sister Joanne attempts to host the perfect Thanksgiving that derails when “telling what we’re thankful for” goes nowhere, her anorexic daughter Blair takes three green beans and arranges them side by side on her empty plate, and husband Mitchell drinks too much and escapes into football. After Pearl trips spilling the gravy and breaking a family heirloom, Joanne attacks her and Grandmother Nancy intervenes and accuses Joanne of caring more about the dish than her niece and notes how exhausted Joanne is from trying to create the perfect holiday. Every reader will recognize members of their own family in this scene and thus become involved in what happens to them.

When Pearl hits adolescence, her weight gain, her early sexual activity, and her inappropriate behaviors signal her difficulty fitting in at her mostly white, mostly wealthy private school and the white world of her family. Despite Andrea’s intentions, Pearl’s stormy teen years threaten to destroy their relationship, yet Andrea refuses to see what’s happening.

“God, Mom. Get a clue.”. . . “Those white girls are not my friends.”

Yet, it’s tough for Mom to get a clue as the chaos that has become her existence and secrets that have been carefully guarded begin to infect her carefully constructed life.

The book successfully juggles a plethora of plot twists that would be impossible to summarize in a single review. While readers will quickly turn the pages to find out what the engaging characters will do next, it would be impossible for them not to stop to consider the multiple issues the book introduces. While this novel is about one family, it’s really about every parent-child relationship. It’s about identity, family, motherhood, race, economics, adoption, idealism, control, secrets, and ultimately about whether love is enough.

Summing it Up: Thicker Than Blood is a gripping novel of a family formed by interracial adoption that is fundamentally the story of all families. Readers will find that the fast pace of the story is tempered by its ability to force contemplation of some big questions. Thicker Than Blood evokes Chicago neighborhoods flawlessly. Chicagoans will relish seeing places they know and others will find it an accurate representation of a unique city.

If you happen to be in the Chicago area, you can attend a Reading and Launch Party, Friday, November 6, 2015, 7:30 p.m. at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago
Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: October 23, 2015
Author Website:
What Others are Saying:
It is rare that a contemporary novel offers the heart-shattering wisdom of Thicker Than Blood. Its portrayals of the always-shifting “American identity,” it offers readers insight into how we have perceived the “American dream” during the past three generations. Jan English Leary's novel masterfully unfolds the stories of unforgettable characters at the moments when they are making and losing and returning to and abandoning all their first assumptions of home and of family. 
—Kevin McIlvoy, author of 57 Octaves Below Middle C, The Complete History of New Mexico, Hyssop, Little Peg, The Fifth Station

With great empathy and insight, Leary portrays a mother-daughter relationship that is both unconventional and universal.
—Katherine Shonk, author of The Red Passport and Happy Now?

Written with uncommon grace and profound insight, Thicker Than Blood is a brave and poignant novel.
—Lynn Sloan, author of Principles of Navigation


  1. I read this review of Thicker Than Blood with great pleasure, and I love your way of categorizing books. You might want to consider reviewing my piece of Pigeon Pie. It's a coming-of-age story that takes place in the 1930s, and food of the period plays a major role. More info if you wish.

  2. Trina, Thank you so much for this review. I'm deeply grateful, and I appreciate your particular take on the issues involving food as comfort and compensation in the novel. Best, Jan Leary