Karen Anders is a protagonist many of us know, and if we don’t know her, we’ve at least met her struggles. A high school English teacher in Houston, Karen had enough kids to take care of already. But when her brother dies and his ex-wife flees, Karen goes from being an aunt to parenting her niece, Tiffany.
How We Came to Be, Johnnie Bernhard’s second novel, establishes itself at the start as a mother-daughter bonding adventure. It’s hard not to root for Karen; she works hard at a job where she feels undervalued, raises a child she didn’t ask for, all while navigating her own loneliness as a middle-aged, single woman.
How she navigates her loneliness is how we learn to relate; she drinks a lot of wine (despite a constant war with her conscience), is wildly sarcastic, has a cat and a dog, as well as two quirky co-worker pals she can lean on for a boost of self-esteem.
Tiffany, Karen’s niece, moves to Austin to attend the University of Texas. Through Tiffany’s college experience and Karen’s coping with being a lonely parent, parallels emerge: Karen’s own mother and father died years back while Tiffany never meets hers; Karen is divorced, and Tiffany is beginning a toxic relationship with a college boy; Karen wonders, as a fifty-year-old, how to meet new people, and Tiffany, at a large state university, wants to fit in.
It’s inspiring to watch Karen, filled with self-doubt, develop her relationships. She learns, at least temporarily, to give Tiffany her freedom as a freshman after overbearing her with concern. Karen then befriends her longtime neighbor, a WWII refugee, and gains a powerful perspective on life. Despite past failures with romance, she opens up to a new man and hits it off. It’s also touching to watch Karen become more confident as a teacher, an area she clearly excels in despite her principal’s lackluster leadership.
Yet, as hopeful as Karen’s personal renaissance is, the story suffers the more victorious she becomes. Mainly, Tiffany’s trajectory as a young, independent character almost vanishes for the second half of the book. As soon as Karen hears about her niece’s college struggles (falling behind in courses, not making friends, falling for a troubled boy), it’s clear to the readers that Karen has little hope for Tiffany’s life in Austin, and soon her trust in Tiffany goes out the window altogether.
What’s disappointing is that the book’s events justify Karen’s distrust; what was once just Karen’s parental paranoia turns into Tiffany’s reality. Tiffany’s boyfriend turns out to be a scumbag (who she leaves at Karen’s demand). She continues to struggle with schoolwork. She doesn’t end up making new friends, as far as the reader can tell. Eventually, Tiffany gets pregnant, and, to get help caring for the child, she moves back home to Houston, just as Karen hoped.
Meanwhile, as her own new romance develops, Karen ends up with everything she wanted: love and security. But it’s hard to forget about Tiffany: how does she feel about all these changes? It’s almost as if Karen’s accomplishments were dependent on Tiffany’s demise.
In the book, Tiffany is happy to move home, have an aunt to help look after her kid, and overall, to find peace after a chaotic college experience. Her goals become that of a middle-aged woman in the body of a teenager.
This isn’t to say that Karen’s happy ending isn’t what we, as readers, wanted for her. Bernhard does a great job of connecting the readers to Karen, allowing us to relate through both her strengths and weaknesses as a character. However, one can only wonder how Tiffany can be so content with abandoning her exciting college life for, what seems to be, the convenience of the main protagonist.
Johnnie Bernhard will appear on the panel, “For the Love of It” at 9:30 a.m. at the State Capitol Room 201H. Other panelists include Sara Lewis, Alexia Arthurs, Tiffany Quay Tyson, and Margaret Bradham Thornton. Bernhard will also do a book signing at 11:00 a.m. at the book signing tent.