Jewel by Bret Lott

A mother’s love is tested when she gives birth in 1943 to a daughter who is, in the lingua franca, is a “Mongolian Idiot.”

I picked up Jewel because I’m going to be participating in a writing workshop on Thursday led by Bret Lott. I figured I would read Jewel because it was the book picked for Oprah’s Book Club, and therefore his most well-known work.

The book follows the life of Jewel, a Southern woman born in 1904 who spent her formative years in a girls’ home after being judged unfit by her hoity-toity grandmother. She marries and sets to work raising a family. Life is nothing more than what she expected until she gives birth to her fifth child, Brenda Kay, who spends the first several months of her life asleep. Brenda Kay is finally slapped with the ugly label “Mongolian Idiot,” which was the common designation for children born with Down Syndrome. No one would judge Jewel for putting Brenda Kay in a home, but Jewel just can’t. Brenda Kay is her daughter, and her daughter’s going to live at home.

Jewel narrates her own story in an engagingly plainspoken, straightforward manner. Lott refrains from letting things get too fancy, though he is enamored by the power of a well-turned phrase. He does well when it comes to establishing place, capturing mood and tone and atmosphere in original ways. I especially enjoyed Jewel and her family’s arrival in Los Angeles, and their sense of disorientation just trying to find one car dealership in a city of car dealerships.

The love that Jewel has for her daughter is powerful, but I could have done with more of Jewel’s feelings towards the rest of her children, or their relationships with each other. We get snapshots here and there, but not enough of the day to day of life in her house. The novel covered a bit too much ground for me, though I did enjoy the imaginatively economic way Lott captures their ten Los Angeles years in just two pages.

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