One of the delights of being a writer is connecting with new authors—even if that sometimes happens virtually. I “met” author Sonja Yoerg several years ago in a Facebook group for writers of women’s fiction. As I got to know Yoerg and learned more about her writing, I was irresistibly drawn to her themes of family history and its impact on characters’ current lives.
HOUSE BROKEN, Yoerg’s debut novel, captivated me from the start. A pensive-yet-adorable chocolate lab graces the book’s cover, but don’t let the cuteness fool you. This is a story about unsettling, heart-wrenching family secrets.
Geneva, a veterinarian, is married and raising two teens. The novel begins with Geneva’s brother informing her that their alcoholic mother, Helen, has had a car accident. She needs to move in with one of her children, and Geneva becomes the default choice. The story alternates among the viewpoints of Helen, Geneva, and Geneva’s 16-year-old daughter, Ella.
There’s something particularly engrossing about intergenerational stories that connect the oldest generation of a family with the youngest. For an author, this is no small feat—and Yoerg accomplishes it by giving each of her narrators a unique voice. I appreciated Helen’s struggles to adjust to Geneva’s household, as well as her colorful unraveling of her own and her family’s history. I was right there with Geneva in her desire to discover her family’s hidden past. I commiserated with Ella’s all-too-familiar (and relatable, even for those of us long beyond those years) teenage angst.
The beauty of Yoerg’s story is the precise details and the perfectly rendered, emotionally charged tone. For example, Ella has a “wordstorm” on her ceiling—white cards dangling from strings, each printed with an SAT vocabulary word—that provide inspiration for her poetry. When Helen coerces her underage grandson into acquiring vodka for her, she feels zero guilt. Likewise, she feels no remorse about choices she made long ago, when women’s limited options put her in an impossible position. Geneva’s gentle hand is able to calm any nervous animal, but she struggles to have the same effect on the humans in her life.
As she ponders her own history, Helen tells us: “The past wasn’t a guest you could ask to leave when you tired of its company. No, the past put up its feet and meant to stay.” This is a story about confronting individual and collective demons. HOUSE BROKEN reminds us that every mother-daughter pair—or, for that matter, any person living in relation to another human being—has the opportunity to face down those demons and conquer them.