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Monday, June 09, 2008

Janeology

Readers have so often heard that a novel has been “ripped from the headlines” that the phrase has by now become little more than a cliché. But anyone living in Houston, or anywhere in the state of Texas, for that matter, in the last few years will most certainly recognize the headlines from which Janeology was ripped. The Andrea Yates trial, which did become a national story of some magnitude thanks to several trashy television programs that milked it for all it was worth to their bottom lines, was one that Texans, especially Houstonians, lived with on an almost-daily basis for months on end.

Like the real life Andrea Yates, Jane Nelson decides that she has had enough of being a mother to her children and chooses to drown them in the family home while her husband is at work. Unlike Yates, she is not entirely successful and one of her toddler twins, a daughter, manages to survive the experience of being held underwater in the kitchen sink until her mother thought she was dead.

When the jury reaches probably the only conclusion that anyone could reasonably expect from them, Tom Nelson is left alone to struggle with the emotions of losing his only son, and his wife, and must deal with his daughter’s slow recovery. Some men finding themselves in Tom’s position might have turned to religion to help them through such a personal crisis; Tom sarcastically rejected religion and turned to the bottle instead. And that was before he even found out just how bad things would get for him when prosecutors decided to charge him with child endangerment for not having recognized that his wife’s mental condition made her a threat to the safety of their children.

Initially skeptical of the defensive strategy devised by his lawyer - that Jane’s inability to fully bond with or to nurture her children is a trait passed to her from one generation of her family to the next, a fact no one could expect him to have been aware of - Tom is reluctant to even listen to the clairvoyant brought in to research Jane’s family tree. But as evidence mounts that Mariah is truly connecting with Jane’s key ancestors, and Tom learns more and more about the woman he still loves, what happened in his kitchen starts to make some kind of sense to him despite the fact that he still feels tremendous guilt for not having saved his children from the ordeal they suffered.

Now it is only a question of what the jury will think of his lawyer’s theory. Will Tom spend the next few years in jail rather than with the little girl that needs him so badly in her life? Will his knowledge of Jane’s background allow him to shake the self-imposed guilt that he feels about his failure to recognize her mental state? How will his daughter cope with the knowledge that her mother killed her brother and tried to kill her?

Karen Harrington’s story of one woman who reached her breaking point is a thought provoking look at the influence, both good and bad, that past generations can have on the present. The theory that a combination of genetics and little or no nurturing from their own parents can explain why some women lack the maternal instinct to protect their children, and even have the ability to destroy those children themselves, while other women will gladly give their own lives to protect their own, is not a new one. But Harrington presents her case in Janeology in such a convincing and entertaining fashion that the theory will make those who read this book wonder a bit the next time the headlines are filled with a story about yet another mother killing her children. And we all know that, sadly, there will be a next time.

Rated at: 4.0

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