Readers will savor the bittersweet taste of first love with a twist of darkness in Tess Callahan’s debut novel. After all, these tortured souls are kissing cousins—literally. While not related by blood, April and Oliver share the same beloved grandmother and grew up climbing trees and skinning knees together.

The story begins when tragedy strikes this fractured family, tossing April and Oliver together again after years of estrangement. A former musical child prodigy, Oliver has abandoned the piano and enrolled in law school, arriving back in New York with an ethereal blonde, Bernadette. True to her name, Oliver’s fiancée is saint-like, the antithesis of her wild child nemesis, the irrepressible April.

While the juxtaposition of the vodka-swilling, mini-skirt clad bartender (April) with the wholesome, schoolteacher ingénue (Bernadette) could become cliché in the hands of a less talented writer, Callahan’s immense gift for storytelling is brimming with truth. Through twists and turns, the young women forge a tenuous friendship that is doomed to fail, but is noble in its intentions, nonetheless.

The plot is poised on a complex love triangle, but when April’s attraction to bad boys takes a dangerous, violent turn, she is rescued by the engaged couple, whose wedding plans are unfolding alongside a funeral and the specter of domestic violence. Battered, bruised and broken, April is on a fast track to nowhere, unmoored by a seemingly never-ending string of tragedies in her life. And Oliver, while outwardly successful, is equally fragile, possessed by the twin demons of desire and dread.

There are no easy answers for April and Oliver, nor for the novel’s peripheral yet equally poignant characters like Nana, the fiery family matriarch; Al, the womanizing, but good-hearted sportswriter; and even T.J., April’s tormented ex-boyfriend. Some secrets should never be shared, and in the end, it is Callahan’s grace and restraint that is sure to win her legions of readers, beguiled by her prose and yearning for her next book.

Karen Ann Cullotta writes from Chicago.

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