My list has two door-themed titles on it and also I put them on the list a while ago, so I was not sure exactly which one Laura Ruby’s Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All was. As it turned out, it didn’t matter, because what I got was as lovely as it was heartbreaking.
In the years leading up to World War II, Frankie’s mother dies and her father sends her and her younger sister, Toni, to a Catholic orphanage. This was apparently just a thing people did when parents couldn’t afford to feed or care for their children (or, sometimes, simply didn’t want to). In the orphanage, Frankie and Toni eagerly look forward to their father’s weekly visit, because he would bring them news of their older brother (who helps the father in his shoe shop) and a hot, greasy meatball sandwich. The visits make them feel loved, even if the rest of the week leaves them chafing against the rules and limitations of the orphanage. But when Frankie’s father meets a new woman and decides to pursue new opportunity several states away, Frankie and Toni are left with only each other, and as they grow into teenagers and young adults—and as the country goes to war—they become more distant and more alone.
Meanwhile, the narrator is a ghost (I buried the lead a bit there) who spends her days drifting through the lives of others. She likes watching Frankie in particular, but also a young wife across town. She makes friends with other ghosts and tries to resolve the problems tethering them to the mortal world, but stubbornly resists the kind of reflection and search for resolution that would set her free.
As I read these twin narratives, I expected them to parallel somewhat, to twist and turn with each other. While there are some thematic echoes between them, the direction Laura Ruby takes each plot thread is independent of the other except for each girl being connected to the orphanage. And that was refreshing, in a way. I like seeing those neat parallels that make everything click into place like a puzzle, but Ruby’s approach felt far more organic and honest, and it made it almost impossible for me to anticipate the end.
But even early on, I could tell that those two endings would be both leave me melancholy, and that I would love it. Ruby details the heartbreak of growing up in a time of war so clearly it was as if I were hearing a family story. There’s love and loss, opportunity and disappointment, reassessment and resignation. There’s loving the right person that everyone insists is wrong for you and having the people who are supposed to protect you thrust you into danger. It’s all beautiful and sad at the same time and when it was over, I still wanted more.
But like the book shows us over and over again, you don’t always get more. Sometimes what you have is all you get. It may not be fair, but there’s a certain beauty to that, too, like a just-bloomed lilac that’s already starting to fade. That is what life is, says Thirteen Doorways: beauty and sorrow, and if you’re lucky, they come in even numbers.