The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis surprised me in lots of good ways.  The book starts in a very tough place emotionally: forty-two-year-old Ezekiel Cooper is divorced, depressed, has a bad relationship with his aging mother, and is not coping well with the upcomin gtenth anniversary of his twin brother Carter’s drowning death.  So much about the premise could have made me run from the book:  (1) I’m not a big fan of men-having-a-midlife crisis books; (2) I’m not a fan of deeply depressed characters.  Despite my misgivings, I became very emotionally invested in these characters after a short time.
The novel takes place in the small town of Clayton,Tennessee, a town which Zeke’s mom is desperate to leave, and which she is desperate for her children to leave as well. Zeke is the first of his five siblings to leave town: he moves to Virginia to live with cousins and attend the University of Virginia, but he returns to Clayton over the holidays and stays for the next twenty-five years.  The story moves physically between Virginia and Tennessee and temporally between 1960 and 1985, eventually revealing more and more of Zeke, his first wife Jackie, and their family members’ lives.
What makes the story work is Zeke and his mother’s messy interior lives.  The rest of the characters are not as well developed, but there are hints to the depths in the lives of Jackie, her children, and Zeke’s cousins Georgia and Osbourne, the elderly couple in Virginia who took him in during college.  This is the story of one man getting his life together as he deals with his twin brother’s death as well as his relationships with his mother and ex-wife.
I’d recommend this book to fans of stories of small towns in the south, to fans of stories about adults growing up and moving on past their past hurts, and to fans of stories about families.
Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date: February 1, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley