These days, polygamous sects are dominating the news and entertainment headlines. Playwright Peggy Riley feeds that fascination with her debut novel, Amity & Sorrow, the suspenseful story of a mother and her two daughters after their escape from a polygamous, fundamentalist cult.

Amity & Sorrow hooks readers from its riveting opening: Amaranth has just escaped the cult with Sorrow and Amity, fleeing across the country by car. Hysterical and sleep deprived, Amaranth totals the car when they reach rural Oklahoma, leading her older daughter Sorrow to flee from the wreckage. When Amaranth, Amity and a widowed farmer named Bradley discover Sorrow locked in Bradley’s gas station bathroom, she is miscarrying. Who could have gotten Sorrow pregnant? Without a car or provisions, where will Amaranth and her daughters go? And what exactly are they running from?

Told from the viewpoints of all three women, the novel gradually reveals a troubling history of abuse. Amaranth is terrified that her husband will hunt them down. Sorrow—the most religious of the three and a zealous pyromaniac—not only demands to return to the compound, but also is convinced that she is an oracle, set forth on earth to deliver God’s message. Amity is merely attempting to join the real world by learning how to read, with Bradley’s aging father acting as her teacher. And then there is Bradley, who must ultimately decide what to do with these women who refuse to leave his front porch.

However, Sorrow will stop at nothing to return to what she sees as her rightful place by her father’s side. But the reasoning behind her desire to go back is more complicated than it appears.

What makes Amity & Sorrow so fascinating is Riley’s compassionate portrayal of these women. Whether she’s explaining the pull that drew Amaranth to her husband in the first place, the power he holds over his many wives or the shock that both daughters face when dealing with the outside world, each emotion is captured exquisitely. This novel is not sensationalist, but rather realistic and frightening as it captures the horrors of real-life cults.

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