Drinking From a Bitter Cup by Angela Jackson-Brown is the author’s debut novel that came out in 2014. Set in the late ’70s/early ’80s in Louisville, KY before switching to rural Alabama, the story is about Sylvia Butler. The story begins when she is 10 years old and living in Louisville with her mentally ill and alcoholic mother. They are poor and Sylvia has no friends except her mother, a neighbor, Miss Cora, and her mother’s sometimes-boyfriend Uncle Ray. Her life is incredibly rough yet it isn’t lacking in love and Sylvia thrives academically.
Unfortunately Sylvia’s life is about to become more difficult as her mother’s mental illness is accelerated by an unexpected death. Shortly thereafter her mother gives up completely and kills herself by overdosing on sleeping pills. A few days after her mother dies Sylvia is introduced to her father whom she only has seen through a picture her mother kept tucked away. Her father had no idea Sylvia existed until contacted by Miss Cora per the instructions Sylvia’s mother left behind.
The day after the funeral Sylvia is whisked away to Alabama and is immediately resented by her father’s wife. Mother Viv, as she makes Sylvia refer to her, is so angry with her father for cheating on her that instead of hashing it out with her husband, she takes it out on Sylvia. Her father does his best to get to know and love Sylvia and for the first time in her life, she has an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, in addition to financial stability. With the exception of Mother Viv, her life improves drastically. But this brief period doesn’t last as tragedy once again strikes Sylvia with even more horrible consequences.
In addition to the prose, the strength of Drinking From a Bitter Cup is Sylvia. She is a smart, brave, and compassionate person. One of those people that you don’t want anything bad to happen to because they don’t deserve it. And yet the bad keeps getting piled onto Sylvia. She doesn’t need any more tests in life because by the time the book ends, she’s already gone through a lifetime of them. From the start you immediately root for her and just want to hug her and keep her close. It’s also clear she is a realist and has learned early on to rely mostly on herself. It doesn’t help that many of the adults around her hurt her in some way.
Ms. Jackson-Brown does a solid job developing all the characters including the two main villains of Mother Viv and Uncle Charles. While they are horrible people, one more so than the other, they aren’t not written as one-dimensional. It’s hard to empathize with them and they are the kind of people you’d like to scream at for being cruel to a child.
I also liked how the author brings ups such complicated issues such as untreated mental illness, poverty, death, religious belief, and various forms of abuse. Because of its setting both in time and place, those issues are a reminder to the reader that society still struggles with how to handle those issues. In some areas we’ve gotten better and more understanding, but in others we’re still failing.
One thing I thought was interesting was Ms. Jackson-Brown’s usage of symbolism. The big symbol in the book is The Wizard of Oz movie. Sylvia and her mother both loved it and the themes in the movie help support what happens in the book. From the idea of what is home to what is family to reality vs. fantasy are all touched upon. For example, one of Sylvia’s favorite memories of her mother is how they would dress up as characters from the movie and act scenes out at home. Yet those happy times of living in a fantasy world are contrasted with harsh realities of Sylvia’s mother’s depression.
Another symbol, one that is more explicitly discussed between characters, is her mother’s bed. Her mother tells her it’s where she was conceived and it’s also where her mother died. Once Sylvia inherits it becomes the scene of a lot of horrible, ugly tragedy. Yet somehow it is looked upon as a place where Sylvia will also conceive her own children and comfort them at night. I wasn’t completely onboard with that connection because it does stand for the extreme dichotomies in Sylvia’s life.
While I enjoyed the book, the one thing I didn’t care for was the ending. It’s rushed and although at least one of the villains gets it in the end, for once I’m not completely okay with a book ending on ambiguity. Normally I like open endings since I enjoy speculating and life rarely has clean, definitive endings. In Drinking From a Bitter Cup it is definitely left up to the reader to decide if Sylvia’s rosy outlook, almost bordering on delusional, on life is justified. I’m of the opinion it isn’t and I can see the cycle being repeated. I guess that’s why I have a problem with it. It saddens me to think of this very special person being stuck when she has kind of personality to break it. The ending also disappoints me because the author uses a plot device I cannot stand and think is cheap and overused. I can’t state what it is since that gives away part of the ending.
Drinking From a Bitter Cup is one of those books that is incredibly difficult to read because it pulls out of the reader all kinds of emotions. Overall I give it 4 pencils out of 5. It’s very gut-wrenching and one to be read with a box of Kleenex nearby.