The Painted Table by Suzanne Field

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Two generations of women come to grips with their history and faith in this moving tale of love and forgiveness.

A prairie fire rips across farmland in North Dakota in the early twenties and terrified seven year old Joann takes refuge and comfort under the sturdy wooden table of the crowded farmhouse.  It is a memory that will haunt her for the rest of her life.  With many siblings, most of whom are girls, and only their father to provide for them, Joann’s life is full of loneliness and disappointment.  When she is finally able to leave to her family, she severs practically all ties with them and begins a new life with her husband Nels.  All is well until the Second World War takes Nels away with the Navy and the resulting strain on their relationship is never fully repaired.  Their daughter Saffee watches them drifting apart and, upon the arrival of her sister April, experiences the void herself as her mother dotes on her youngest child.  On the death of one of her sisters, Joann suddenly inherits the wooden table that she used to hide under as a child.  The memories attached to the table take hold of her and she struggles with them, eventually trying to cover them with coat after coat of paint.  The two girls watch their mother’s slow graceless fall into insanity, one their father is determined not to see.  Saffee is always fearful of becoming too much like her mother and this drives her actions as she tries to get on with her life.

The focus of the book gradually shifts perspective from Joann to Saffee as she grows up.  Sadly this is the downfall of the story as much of the tension is lost when Saffee leaves homes.  What starts as a moving and disturbing portrait of a woman in desperate need of help dissolves into a rather mundane tale of salvation for Saffee.  It is unfortunate because Suzanne Field has a natural rhythmic prose that captures each heart rending scene beautifully without the need to hammer home a point, which she does repeatedly in the second half of the book.  The hook of “how will Saffee turn out and will Joann be redeemed?” is lost in place of “how long will it take before Saffee realises she is not her mother?”

In spite of this, the story is one that a lot of people will be able to relate to with regards to difficult upbringings and unpredictable parents, and it approaches the problems and stigma surrounding mental health in a gentle and touching way.  Finding hope in the face of despair is something everyone needs at some point in their lives and it is satisfying in the story when the table itself becomes a symbol for this.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Booksneeze for review purposes.  No other compensation was received and I was not required to write a favourable review.

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