Amy Weinland Daughters’s novel You Cannot Mess This Up explores an irresistible time travel premise: What if you could go back in time and meet your family as an outsider and hear what the adults in your life had to say about you as a child, both good and bad? Daughters imagines herself as an adult guest spending Thanksgiving in her childhood home in suburban Houston, and the text is filled with more 1970s details—and synthetic fabrics—than you can shake an eight-track cassette at.
What is at first a disconcerting trip down memory lane turns into a chance for the narrator, Big Amy, to get to know her family (especially her mother) outside of the boundaries of their real relationships. She observes the adults’ fascinating exchanges with each other and develops a lovely relationship with the childhood version of herself, Little Amy, an unselfconscious ten-year-old who memorizes football stats, fetches pull-tab beers for the grown-ups, and hams it up playing talent show with her siblings.
The family’s frequent joking asides are funny but too plentiful; sometimes they distract from the book’s serious scenes and bighearted observations. Beyond reliving the memories, there are moments of gravity: An after-hours Thanksgiving night party for the neighborhood adults leads to a harrowing moment for Big Amy, for example, and Amy refers to a serious personal struggle from her young adulthood that is set to occur sometime between when she’s ten and her time-traveling age.
Vivacious and unique—just like Little Amy—You Cannot Mess This Up is prone to oversharing in a way that is far too fearless and full of life to be awkward.
Meredith Grahl Counts
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