The Butler sisters have never had it easy, from growing up with an absentee father to dealing with the ripple effects of incarceration. Their relationships—with one another and the outside world—are at the center of The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, a debut novel by journalist Anissa Gray.
The story begins in 2013, when eldest daughter Althea, a local restaurateur, is awaiting sentencing for fraud and embezzlement along with her husband, Proctor. Told in alternating chapters by Althea and her younger sisters, Viola and Lillian, we learn how they got to this point, and how they plan to move forward.
After their mother died, the sisters and their brother, Joe, should have been raised by their father—a preacher with a fiery temper. But when his job starts taking him on the road for months at a time, the task of raising the family falls on the shoulders of 12-year-old Althea. Despite doing the best they could, each was left—understandably—with emotional scars.
While the book centers on the Butler women, Joe, for his part, has a host of issues of his own (largely relating to his relationship with Lillian). But even though he’s not given the first-person treatment, his sisters relay his story in a way that’s critical but sympathetic. You get the sense that, for all they’ve been through, Althea, Lillian and Viola continue to look for the good in people—and themselves.
Though Gray’s works as a journalist didn’t necessarily inform this book’s subject matter (she’s covered business and international finance at Reuters and CNN), she certainly drew on her personal life in crafting the Butler sisters. Like her characters, Gray is a woman of color who was raised in a devoutly Christian community in Michigan. Like Viola, she has struggled with bulimia (evident in the vivid descriptions she uses as Viola, triggered by stress, slips into old habits while on her way to Lillian’s). It’s clear that Gray took great care in creating fully fleshed-out narrators struggling to keep themselves from being defined by their pasts. (Translation: These are women you want to root for.)
Gray's first novel echoes Brit Bennett’s The Mothers in its return-to-a-small-town vibe, as well as Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run in its references to women's imprisonment. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is a moving portrait of a troubled family that would be an excellent book club pick.