🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟Five beautiful stars to author Jessica Cantwell for her truly amazing contemporary fiction novel, Rebuilding Jennifer (Mind, Heart, and Soul Series, Book 1)!
Rebuilding Jennifer (Mind, Heart, and Soul Series, Book 1), by Jessica Cantwell
Find this book on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Rebuilding-Jennifer-Jessica-Cantwell-ebook/dp/B0C8BVMJZ2
Before You Can Thrive, You Must Survive
I’ve been a big fan of author Jessica Cantwell for a long time, first discovering her through the fantasy trilogy, The Realm Saga. I love her fantasy writing, her creative mind, and the way she builds a story. At heart, I believe Jessica Cantwell *is* a storyteller. She is the woman sitting around the fire, captivating her audience with her tales. Her beautifully wild imagination pulls in readers and leads them on epic journeys.
When I heard that Cantwell was writing a contemporary literary fiction novel, I became curious! This wouldn’t be fantasy; this would reflect real life. Then I learned Rebuilding Jennifer was loosely based on her own childhood experience.
Rebuilding Jennifer begins through the eyes of a 7-year-old Jennifer Lee Black. She lives with her single mom (Jackie), who is also her mental, physical, and emotional abuser. But like a lot of children of abuse, Jennifer still desperately wants her mother’s love. She wants to please her. She’s hopeful her mother will change — this is a theme repeated throughout the book through increasingly soul-wrenching experiences. But we suspect — actually, we know — that the horrible woman will not.
This was a deeply emotional story, and there are scenes and moments in this book that are difficult to read because things like this *do* happen behind some closed doors. Sometimes it’s hidden, and no one is aware. But often, people do know something is wrong, and yet they do nothing. Even when Jennifer turns to the police, she is shipped back home. (Yes, it was “a different time” back then — the book begins in 1984 and spans a decade — but it’s still heartbreaking to know there *were* people who could’ve helped but did not.) Even worse, there are adults who impose their own forms of abuse on her. Who is she going to tell? Her mother?
From the very beginning, the reader witnesses a hopeful Jennifer, from the child who picks out blue dinnerware for her mother because she believes it will please her, to the girl sitting outside in the dark and cold, waiting for her mother to pick her up from school LONG after everyone has left. And she’s so grateful when her mother finally shows, even though it’s still not good. The relief and the subsequent fear twist your heart.
Over the years, she learns how to survive the abuse and the neglect. Whether it’s Jennifer-as-a-child or Jennifer-as-a-teen, she doesn’t wallow. She wants a better life, of course, but she doesn’t wallow in the horrible one she was born into. Sometimes she crumbles, but she gets up. She keeps going.
There are bright spots in this story. As a teen, she meets her first real boyfriend, Terry Davis, and he is kind, as is his family. Her grandfather, great-grandmother, and uncle love her. But their power is limited — or maybe they believe it is, and that’s why their help never changes her life for the better. At the drop of a hat, her mother can swoop in, take her away, and harm her in any way she chooses without any consequences.
Friends come and go. Some don’t know what to do. Few stay true — some become truly terrible. Jennifer is also moved from home to home and state to state, in and out of homes belonging to family members she doesn’t really know. A life of instability and chaos shapes how Jennifer will navigate her days to survive. And that’s what readers need to remember. Jennifer’s decisions are reactions to the frightening situations she’s been shoved into.
In new places, being the New Girl comes with its own set of challenges. But still, Jennifer holds her head up, and she survives. She keeps her eyes forward and does what she needs to do to make it through. Her thoughts and behaviors are understandable. Perhaps this is a function of the author’s own experiences that makes Jennifer’s story so real. Regardless, Cantwell created a compelling story.
One thing I really liked about this book is even though it spans 10 years, the reader never feels bogged down in the present. Cantwell seamlessly moves readers through the years, never rushing and never staying in one place longer than she needs to. It’s also interesting how without the author telling the reader what is going to happen, you can sense when something bad is coming, even if you can’t quite put your finger on how it’s going to play out. You can feel it in your gut. And Jennifer suspects it, too, but she marches toward it, because what other choice does she have?
And while the book centers on the abuse Jennifer lived through, there are bright spots, too. Earlier, I referenced Terry, her first boyfriend and his loving family. Even better, for me, was the teenage boy she met toward the end of the book, Kit Cavanaugh. Bonus points to the author for choosing Soundgarden’s music to accompany *that* scene. Whew! I wasn’t expecting to find such steam in this book, but you know what? I was a teenager once, too. How the scene played out was vividly believable. I loved it.
Kit will make you fall in love. This is a good person — this is someone who will grow into a good man. But there is trouble there as well. The question becomes: How will they deal with the nightmare they’re thrown into? They’re still young, and the adults making decisions for them are cruel. And this is where the book’s climax appears. There is violence; there is the aftermath. Now Jennifer needs to decide on the trajectory of the rest of her life. I wouldn’t want to make these decisions as a mature adult.
But Jennifer is strong.
Over the years, I’ve read a handful of books centering on a young person surviving abuse who grew into a great adult who will thrive. And it’s hard to read those books. But I trusted author Jessica Cantwell to deliver a book I could respect, to be grateful to have read it, and to be humbled by the power of her story. Jessica Cantwell, fantasy author and creative storyteller, has set the bar on what it takes to craft a contemporary fiction novel that is an ode to the power of survival.
This is a 5-star read. The writing is perfect. The characters feel real. The pain is real, but so is the optimism and the unshakeable will to make it through. At the end of the day, there are strong souls out there. And whether we meet them inside a book or off the page, we get to honor them by listening to (reading) and sharing their stories.
I’m looking forward to reading book two in the Mind, Heart, and Soul Series, Finding Preston. I need to know what happens next. Applause for Jessica Cantwell and Rebuilding Jennifer! This is a must-read first-in-series for readers who celebrate the power of the (young) human spirit.