The Opposite of Everyone By Joshilyn Jackson
Southern writer Joshilyn Jackson presents her seventh novel in The Opposite of Everyone, displaying her unerring talent for creating memorable characters. You might even recognize a character from a previous story if you pick this for your summer reading pleasure!
On the surface, Paula Vauss appears to have it all. In her early 30s, she’s a successful divorce attorney with an expensive wardrobe and sleek downtown loft. She has a reputation for being a ruthless negotiator when it comes to her clients’ interests, and her two partners are more than happy to pass her the firm’s most contentious cases. Besides being smart and successful, Paula has mixed-race beauty that makes it easy for her to meet men. She’s not looking for a husband, but she has plenty of male friends who are ready and willing when she calls for a late-night date.
Few people who meet Paula would guess that she had a rough childhood. She and her free-spirited mother had a vagabond existence. Karen, or Kai, as she called herself, dragged Paula along from city to city as she met and moved in with a series of boyfriends. “We’ve been tambourine players and yoga teachers and Ren Faire workers,” says Paula. “We were vegans with Eddie, then spent the next winter squatting in Tick’s deer blind. We’ve read palms and tarot on the street near Anthony’s tiny New Orleans apartment…I was somehow all those incarnations.”
Kai is a talented artist and storyteller who weaves her own mythology based on the Hindu deities. She attempts to make Paula strong by nicknaming her Kali Jai, for a warrior goddess associated with empowerment. When Paula is in middle school, Kai is arrested when police raid the pot farm where she and Paula are living with her latest boyfriend. Paula enters the Georgia foster care system and spends the next couple of years in a group home, where she learns to protect herself with both her wits and fists.
After Kai serves her sentence, she settles down to a job as a waitress and rescues Paula from foster care. But the spell of her storytelling has been broken and something has changed forever between mother and daughter. Each has been scarred by recent experiences, and each carries a secret that could forever alter the life of the other. As a high school senior, Paula earns a full-ride scholarship and she cuts ties with her mother when she leaves for college. The monthly support checks that she sends to assuage her guilt are her only connection to Kai. The checks are small at first, then more substantial after Paula finishes law school and makes partner at her firm. She sends the checks for 15 years as payment on what she calls a Karmic debt.
On her own, Paula becomes a foster care success story who manages to put a difficult past behind her. She hasn’t escaped her childhood without some lingering issues; she still resents people who grew up in “normal” families and she’s not very good at keeping a boyfriend. But all in all, she feels in control of her life. Then comes the day when the envelope with her most recent check for Kai appears in her mailbox, marked “Return to sender” in Kai’s familiar handwriting. In a cryptic message scrawled on the back of the voided check, Kai says she’s dying of cancer and no longer needs Paula’s money. “I am going on a journey, Kali,” Kai wrote. “I am going back to my beginning…death is not the end. You will be the end. We will meet again, and there will be new stories. You know how Karma works.”
Suddenly, the past and its secrets have caught up with Paula. As a divorce lawyer, she is an expert at tearing apart families. Now she must try to put together the pieces of her own family, searching for clues in Kai’s stories and poems. Luckily she’s not alone. By her side is Zachary Birdwine, a private investigator who has helped dig up dirt on her clients’ spouses and is now turning out to be the only person she can really trust. She also has a new-found half brother, Julian, another victim of her mother’s gypsy lifestyle. When Paula finally figures out where Kai’s journey will end, she has embarked on her own journey of self-discovery that may help her put the hurt from the past behind her.
Joshilyn Jackson is an expert at creating leading characters who are complicated and unique. She makes us want to know the people in her stories and to understand what makes them tick. This is the case with her previous book, Someone Else’s Love Story, which features William Ashe, a brilliant scientist who looks like the god Thor and has Asperger’s syndrome. Paula plays a minor role in that book as William’s best friend from high school, and she steals the spotlight in every scene with her tough, take-no-prisoners attitude. It’s great to be able to learn more about her in this book, which is the perfect summer read for those who like their heroines smart and tough. HLM