Difficult to read, but impossible to put down—this is perhaps the best way to describe Melanie Thorne’s debut, Hand Me Down. Like Janet Finch’s 1999 bestseller White Oleander, this is a raw and all too realistic story about a California teen forced to move from house to house—and often from bad situation to worse—after her well-intentioned but self-centered mother makes a life-changing choice.

In Hand Me Down, 14-year-old Liz is forced to leave home after her mother marries a convicted sex offender. Like White Oleander’s Astrid, Liz is a likable, sensitive and courageous narrator, forced into maturity too soon. However, this is no copycat debut. Hand Me Down is based on many of Thorne’s own life experiences, including the fact that her mother did, indeed, marry a sex offender, which led to Thorne and her younger sister moving apart.

Like Thorne, Liz has a little sister, Jaime, and Liz has grown up trying to protect her—first from their violent, alcoholic father and then from their mother’s new husband who, on more than one occasion, has let Liz know he’s interested in getting to know his stepdaughters more intimately. Even after Liz and Jaime are separated—living not just in different homes, but in different states—Liz continues to try to protect Jaime. It’s a situation that leads to heartache for both Liz and the reader, who by this time is so thoroughly drawn in by Thorne’s honest prose and dialogue that it becomes difficult to put the book aside.

Thorne said she wrote Hand Me Down to help herself heal; to show that “parents, even good ones, screw up”; and to encourage others struggling with family pain and forgiveness to share their stories. No doubt, Hand Me Down will inspire conversations. The situations and people Liz encounters are all believable. Even the more surreal characters (like Christian conservative Aunt Deborah) and events (Liz and Jaime trying to talk their drunk father out of buying a beer from a gas station on their way to Christmas Eve dinner) are those that readers vividly see and experience right along with Liz, thanks to Thorne’s sharp storytelling.

Hand Me Down is Thorne’s first novel. Despite a somewhat predictable (but much wished-for) ending, it hopefully will not be her last.

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