Monday, May 15, 2023

Town and Gown by Jan English Leary

Is it possible to live in a small town while keeping a big secret? If it is, how will holding that secret change you and others who don’t know of its possible impact on them? Town and Gown by Jan English Leary probes the consequences of a big secret in the alternating stories of two young women who grew up in a small, rural college town in Pennsylvania. The novel begins when Wanda and Callie, the main characters, are in high school and Leary, who was a teacher in Chicago for many years, captures school life and the highs and lows of being a teen beautifully.

Wanda is from a farm family and is therefore not deemed popular or smart enough for college and success beyond her current status. She’s highly intelligent, though, and wants to go to college and become a nurse, but she follows the expected path and marries her aimless high school boyfriend David. After losing his job, David joins the Army without telling Wanda and he’s killed in Iraq. Upon learning of his death, in her grief, Wanda foolishly sleeps with Whit, the annoying, genius son of a local college professor. When she learns she’s pregnant, Wanda allows everyone to believe that the baby is her husband’s. 

Meanwhile, Callie, a professor’s daughter, second in her class, and girlfriend of the star athlete, is accepted at a fine school, but her parents won’t let her go. She starts classes at home and begins clandestinely sleeping with her French professor, a man ten years her senior. They run away together to Martinique and then to New York City where he hits her so she escapes and builds a new life in Chicago.

Back in Pennsylvania, Macky, Wanda’s son, is brilliant and like his biological father, doesn’t fit in well with other kids. His teacher doesn’t believe that he can read and he’s blamed when others bully him. “He just feels things more than most kids do.” Wanda begins teaching him at home and takes him with her when she cleans houses. She cleans for Callie’s mother and one day finds her confused and ill and calls Callie who she believes is a privileged snob. After Callie arrives and settles in she’s with Wanda and Macky when Macky has a seemingly uncontrollable tantrum. Callie knows what Macky needs when she sees his distress and she holds him tightly until he calms. 

Callie asks Wanda, “He’s really sensitive, right?”


“Sounds, smells?”

“Uh huh.”

Finally having someone recognize Macky for who he is, Wanda, in her vulnerability, tells Callie her secret. After that Wanda realizes she has to decide whether to tell Macky’s grandparents of his true parentage. “Who knew the right thing to do, . . . How does someone untangle a big knotted mess?” 

Wanda and Callie see that they need each other and their friendship grows. Wanda helps Callie find a local person to care for her mother. Callie supports Wanda as she decides whether to share her secret.

The characters, even the most minor ones, in this page-turner, are unique, well-developed, and intriguing. The focus is on Callie and Wanda, but the male characters and the mothers all feel like real people you’d meet where you live.

Summing it Up: If you’re looking for a character-driven, propulsive novel that explores the importance of being true to self while also examining the dangers of keeping secrets, Town and Gown is just the book for you. This engaging novel that’s packed with great mother and mother-figure characters as well as realistic men belongs in every hammock this coming Memorial Day weekend. It also has a hope-filled ending that readers will appreciate. You can’t go wrong with Town and Gown. This is an original paperback and is also available as an ebook for $4.99.

Note to Chicago area readers: Leary, who lives in Chicago, captures the city well. I loved seeing Flossmoor, the suburb less than a mile from where I live, mentioned as Callie’s roommate’s hometown. If you live in the area, the book’s launch will be at Women and Children First on Tuesday, May 30 at 7 p.m. CDT where Leary will be in conversation with author Lynn Sloan.

Rating: 4 Stars 

Publication Date: May 15, 2023

Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews: 

Jan English ‍Leary’s ‍latest ‍novel ‍sweeps ‍the ‍reader ‍into ‍the ‍lives ‍of ‍two ‍women ‍from ‍the ‍same ‍small ‍town ‍as ‍they ‍launch ‍into ‍adulthood. ‍Wanda, ‍a ‍farm ‍girl, ‍marries ‍her ‍high ‍school ‍boyfriend, ‍works ‍at ‍the ‍local ‍bakery, ‍and ‍hopes ‍to ‍someday ‍start ‍a ‍family. ‍Callie, ‍the ‍daughter ‍of ‍a ‍college ‍professor, ‍dreams ‍of ‍bigger ‍adventures ‍far ‍from ‍her ‍overprotective ‍parents ‍and ‍the ‍college ‍town ‍mentality. ‍With ‍writing ‍deeply-rooted ‍in ‍place ‍and ‍character, ‍Leary ‍masterfully ‍immerses ‍us ‍in ‍the ‍lives ‍of ‍these ‍two ‍women ‍as ‍they ‍set ‍out ‍on ‍separate ‍journeys, ‍only ‍to ‍discover ‍the ‍many ‍ways ‍their ‍paths ‍intersect. ‍‍Town ‍and ‍Gown ‍is ‍a ‍moving ‍portrayal ‍of ‍resiliency ‍and ‍second ‍chances, ‍reminding ‍us ‍that ‍while ‍we ‍can't ‍always ‍choose ‍our ‍circumstances, ‍there's ‍power ‍to ‍be ‍found ‍in ‍how ‍we ‍respond.”

‍— ‍Marcie ‍Roman, ‍author ‍of Journey to the Parallels‍‍

‍“I ‍admire ‍the ‍no-frills, ‍and ‍no-waste, ‍prose ‍Jan ‍English ‍Leary ‍deploys ‍in ‍her ‍novel ‍‍Town ‍and ‍Gown‍ ‍to ‍narrate ‍the ‍lives ‍of ‍two ‍women ‍growing ‍up–one ‍from ‍the ‍farm ‍and ‍one ‍from ‍the ‍hill–in ‍a ‍college ‍village ‍in ‍the ‍northeast. ‍Despite ‍dread ‍events ‍and ‍bleak ‍prospects ‍that ‍might ‍give ‍Greek ‍drama ‍a ‍run ‍for ‍its ‍money, ‍there ‍is ‍a ‍kind ‍of ‍admirable ‍resilience ‍here, ‍too. ‍Lacking ‍a ‍scintilla ‍of ‍nostalgia, ‍this ‍fast ‍paced ‍and ‍gripping ‍novel ‍does ‍not ‍pine ‍for ‍lost ‍glory ‍days, ‍but ‍instead ‍offers ‍a ‍bracing ‍account ‍of ‍today’s ‍small-town ‍America ‍with ‍a ‍subtle ‍but ‍potent ‍feminist ‍slant.”

‍— ‍Charles ‍Lamar ‍Phillips, ‍author ‍of Estranged and Dead South‍‍

‍“‍This ‍lively, ‍entertaining ‍novel ‍features ‍both ‍deeply ‍felt ‍characters ‍and ‍an ‍engaging ‍plot. ‍It ‍immerses ‍us ‍in ‍the ‍struggles ‍of ‍two ‍young ‍women—one ‍a ‍farmer's ‍daughter, ‍the ‍other ‍a ‍professor's ‍child—as ‍they ‍seek ‍to ‍establish ‍themselves ‍in ‍the ‍world. ‍Through ‍their ‍stories, ‍we ‍see ‍how ‍simple ‍categories, ‍such ‍as ‍the ‍divide ‍between ‍the ‍intellectual ‍and ‍the ‍agrarian, ‍can ‍be ‍limiting, ‍and ‍we ‍come ‍to ‍question ‍easy ‍binaries ‍concerning ‍social ‍status ‍and ‍destiny. ‍The ‍novel ‍also ‍explores ‍the ‍assumptions ‍we ‍make ‍about ‍each ‍other ‍and ‍the ‍kinds ‍of ‍compromises–some ‍big, ‍some ‍small–we ‍all ‍must ‍learn ‍to ‍live ‍with ‍as ‍the ‍inevitable ‍result ‍of ‍creating ‍a ‍life. ‍‍Town ‍and ‍Gown‍ ‍is ‍an ‍empathetic ‍and ‍insightful ‍page ‍turner ‍of ‍a ‍novel, ‍one ‍that ‍I ‍won't ‍soon ‍forget.”

‍—Beth ‍Castrodale, ‍author ‍of In This Ground and I Mean You No Harm 

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