One of Vanity Fair's Best Books of the Year
A bighearted and moving debut about a wry retired schoolteacher whose decade-old secret threatens to come to light and send shockwaves through her small Texas town.
Billington, Texas, is a place where nothing changes. Well, almost nothing. For the first time in nearly four decades, Mary Alice Roth is not getting ready for the first day of school at Billington High. A few months into her retirement—or, district mandated exile as she calls it—Mary Alice does not know how to fill her days. The annual picnic is coming up, but that isn’t nearly enough since the menu never changes and she had the roles mentally assigned weeks ago. At least there’s Ellie, who stops by each morning for coffee and whose reemergence in Mary Alice’s life is the one thing soothing the sting of retirement.
Mary Alice and Ellie were a pair since the day Ellie moved in next door. That they both were single mothers—Mary Alice widowed, Ellie divorced—with sons the same age was a pleasant coincidence, but they were forever linked when they lost the boys, one right after the other. Years later, the two are working their way back to a comfortable friendship. But when Mary Alice’s sister arrives on her doorstep with a staggering piece of news, it jeopardizes the careful shell she’s built around her life. The whole of her friendship with Ellie is put at risk, the fabric of a place as steadfast as Billington is questioned, and the unflappable, knotty fixture that is Mary Alice Roth might have to change after all.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
With his debut novel, Who? Weekly podcast host Bobby Finger explores the poignant complexities of small-town life. Forced into retirement, Texas schoolteacher Mary Alice Roth has leaned heavily on a newly rekindled friendship with her neighbor Ellie, whom she first bonded with when they both tragically lost their children. But a surprise visit from Mary Alice’s estranged sister brings an inconvenient reality check and threatens to topple the entire town’s fragile sense of stability. Finger brilliantly deals with the less-than-ideal aspects of a tight-knit community, especially the way people connect with each other over shared resentments and dysfunction. The Old Place is a heartfelt story about the stories we tell ourselves—and the dangers of believing them.
Finger debuts with an engaging story of a former high school math teacher and the secrets that catch up with her. After 40 years in the Billington, Tex., school district, Mary Alice Roth is forced into retirement. Prickly and adrift, she rekindles a dormant friendship with her neighbor Ellie Hall. Decades earlier, divorcée Ellie moved next door and became fast friends with Mary Alice, by then a widow, as did their same-age sons. Then, after their sons' high school graduation in 2002, a drunk driver killed Ellie's son Kenny. News of the death of Mary Alice's son, Michael, spread through town shortly after, though the cause went "unspoken" by Mary Alice. Now, Mary Alice's estranged sister, Katherine, arrives, bringing news that Michael is in fact alive, and has shown up drunk at her home in Atlanta. The revelation upends Mary Alice's exacting plans for the town's annual picnic. The years of hiding the truth catch up with Mary Alice, as does her husband's covered-up suicide. Though the narrative tends to meander, and some of the twists are telegraphed early, Finger has a firm handle on Billington's complex and stifling social dynamics. Fans of small-town yarns will find much to like.
Such a cozy and engrossing read!