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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
Growing up in small-town America in the ’60s was exciting and full of discovery but when you are the beloved children of the town’s mayor, you have a particularly privileged existence. When Shelly and Steven Fagan find their world collapsing around them in the midst of the Vietnam War, they find they both have to grow up very quickly. In Controlling Shelly Fagan by Olive Dunn we meet Shelly in 1986, a wife and mother of two young boys but still a woman traumatized by her teenage years and the horrible things that happened to her back then. Shelly was just 17 when she and her “forever” love, Chris Johnson, conceived a baby. Shelly’s mother, who wanted so much more for her daughter than the life of a wife and mother that she’d had to settle for, had a plan. Spiriting Shelly away to the convent she herself had been schooled in, she made a deal with the Mother Superior to lie to her daughter and put the baby up for adoption, forever changing her relationship with her daughter. Shelly, twenty years later, is still haunted by the love she lost and the baby that “died” at birth. A happily married mother, she has moved on with her life… or has she? Can she ever forget the love she and Chris shared all those years ago and can she ever reconcile with the parents that lied and cheated her of the life she’d wanted so desperately?
Controlling Shelly Fagan by Olive Dunn is so much more than a romance. It is really a social commentary of a bygone age, an age of almost innocence that turned ugly with the social disruption of the 1960s and the war that took so many lives. I found this story to be totally compelling as we split the narrative between the middle-aged mother, Shelly and the rebellious but loveable teenage Shelly. I particularly liked the fact that the twists, although not massive, were consistent and totally surprising all throughout the story. I felt the author had the balance exactly right between the two totally different decades, the ’80s and the ’60s. The juxtaposition of social mores between the two eras was beautifully and at times painfully highlighted. The idea that young women of that time had so little control over their own destinies was stunning and, with Dunn’s superb writing, I was swept along in this amazing journey of self-discovery and forgiveness. Although it’s not quite PG in its rating there is little in the book that could upset anyone but a total prude and I found the loving, romantic scenes to be beautifully written. There were parts of the story that were able to bring a tear to the eye of this reader and, for me, that is the hallmark of an exceptional storyteller. This is, I suspect, a debut novel and one that has been years in the making. I can only hope that Olive Dunn follows up quickly with another book as this one definitely captivated me and I would love to read more from this talented author.