Eight-year-old Tessa Lee wakes to find her drug-addicted mother nowhere in sight in Firefly Cloak, a compelling multigenerational novel by Sheri Reynolds, whose previous works include the Oprah's Book Club pick The Rapture of Canaan. Abandoned at a campground in Alabama when her mother, Sheila, runs off with her most recent no-good boyfriend, Tessa Lee and her little brother Travis are left with nothing but a firefly-print housecoat and a phone number written in Magic Marker on Travis' back.
As the plot zooms forward seven years, we find Tessa Lee running away from her grandmother Lil (the owner of that phone number, with whom Tessa Lee now lives) on a quest to find Sheila, who is rumored to work as a mermaid at a rundown carnival on the Massachusetts coast. Tessa Lee succeeds only to be abandoned again when her mother runs after being discovered.
The tale shifts perspective from Tessa Lee to Sheila to Lil, following them on separate quests: Lil's to find Tessa Lee, Tessa Lee's to find Sheila and Sheila's to find whatever it is she needs to turn her life around. The story of addiction and tragedy (Tessa Lee's brother Travis has died; the details of his death are threaded out slowly) is presented plainly with a na•ve and frank narrative voice, but the simple tale is cushioned with exquisite and unexpected metaphors. A hungry Sheila is empty as a straw. A bush has honeysuckle vine so sweet that it made the made the ants too drunk to bite her. Tessa Lee describes her mother's laugh as as strong as cheese. It's hard to resist being charmed by plucky Tessa Lee, and the shifting perspective highlights the fortitude shared by all three generations of women. Reynolds' ruminations on redemption are so fleshed-out over the course of the book that the feeble ending feels slightly unsatisfying. But like the firefly coat Tessa Lee cherishes, this ordinary-looking novel has something truly magical inside. Iris Blasi is a writer in New York City.