The Manning Girl, Catherine Browder's debut novel, is a warmhearted and original reimagining of George Eliot's 1861 classic Silas Marner. High school teacher Tyler Manning has only ever tried to do what was right--helping his father on the farm, caring for his aging mother, and staying close to Billie, his neighbor and childhood crush, even after she married another man. So when a 15-year-old girl shows up on his porch in 1992 with his estranged brother Mickey's newborn infant, it doesn't take Tyler long to decide to adopt and raise the baby, whom he names May. As May grows up, Tyler builds a community of found family around her. But Mickey's memory continues to haunt him and he can't help feeling that someday, his brother might come back.
Browder's keen character insights and pitch-perfect dialogue capture a vividly crafted cast of characters who, while imperfect, are nonetheless endlessly lovable. Tyler may be an old-fashioned underdog hero, but his relationship with his parents, Mickey, Billie, and May all offer original and nuanced elements of his character. And the specificity with which his past and his daughter's upbringing are written allows his bighearted, hardscrabble, small midwestern town to feel as fully realized as the novel's characters. Browder's generous treatment of her characters and setting creates an atmosphere of nostalgia that manages never to become too sentimental. While the novel's timeless themes of sibling rivalry, inheritance, and family strife are worth reading about, it's Browder's sensitive attunement to intimate community life that demands witnessing. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor