The Book of Polly is the hilarious and bittersweet story of Willow and her larger-than-life mom, Polly. Polly becomes pregnant with Willow in her late fifties, and Willow’s father dies during the pregnancy. Because her father dies before she is born and Polly has Willow so late in life, Willow only has Polly. Her siblings are long gone, and the bustling life that comes with having a full family is absent, so Willow clings to Polly with heartbreaking tenacity. Willow has always been consumed by the fear that Polly is going to die. Willow also tells a lot of crazy stories about Polly, stories that occasionally transcend the boundaries of truth. Polly, on the other hand, doesn't give a crap when she’s going to die, and quite frankly, is a little worn out by Willow’s persistent anxieties and lies.
Hepinstall does a fantastic job developing each of her characters, and I enjoyed both their personalities and how they interact with each other. Though Willow is the protagonist, the title is dead on. This is Polly's book, and she is the puzzle piece that connects each of the characters. Polly colors the book with such vibrancy it’s tough to believe she isn’t a real person. She is brassy, funny, insulting, and ferocious. But she is also deeply sensitive and loving. When Willow shoots the neighbor kids with her BB gun in order to protect Polly’s garden and win her affection, Polly is appropriately upset. She tells Willow never to shoot anyone again. And then, just like any other time Polly rewards Willow for getting rid of a varmint, Polly gives Willow a dollar and says, “’Oh wait a minute, there were two of them,’ and she [goes] back to her purse to get another dollar bill.”
I thought the plot was rather outlandish and rolled my eyes many times in disbelief. But it was never easy to put this book down and return to real life. In just over 300 pages, Polly battles cancer, sets fire to a handful of things, accidentally kills someone with a squirrel zapper, fights off perverts while floating down a river on a raft with Willow, and visits a preacher who may or may not be able to cure cancer. But really, the reader shouldn't be shocked by this. The cover, displaying Polly with a falcon on her shoulder, seems an attempt to prepare the reader for the book’s outrageous content. Oh yes, Polly has a falcon. Or does she?
By far, my most favorite thing about The Book of Polly is how skillfully and beautifully Hepinstall writes. Very early she describes a neighbor as “a reed-thin woman with a permanently conflicted expression, as though, deep inside her, someone was trying to bathe a cat.” That was the moment I knew I was going to love this book no matter how the story played out. And I do love this book. I love it much the same way everyone loves Polly. This book is a little crazy, but it's also packed with biting charm and wisdom, and I will forever applaud it as a masterpiece.