The Girls With No Names
By Serena Burdick
Things fall apart, as they say. But in Serena Burdick’s second novel, “The Girls With No Names,” the Tildon family’s shattering doesn’t happen all at once. It begins like hairline cracks in fine porcelain.
The family’s story starts in New York City circa 1910. Their world is gilded and grand — privileged in every sense, at least from the outside looking in. But from the sumptuous parlor to the sprawling dining room, secrets lurk around every corner of the Tildon manse and in all of its inhabitants. They are Jeanne, a French-born former ballerina; her handsome blueblood husband, Emory; and the teenage sisters Luella (restless, impulsive) and Effie (introspective with a grand imagination).
The two girls are close until Luella disrupts the status quo. Dissatisfied with her starched, white-gloved life, she lies to her mother and persuades Effie to sneak off with her to the “gypsy” encampment on the outskirts of town. (In an afterword, Burdick writes: “I am aware that the word gypsy is seen by many as offensive. … The usage here is meant to be indicative of a time and place and is not in any way reflective of my own thoughts on the Romani community.”)
What’s the harm in a small fib, Luella reasons. After all, the sisters are merely curious about people who live in tents and dance around campfires. Effie watches nervously as her wide-eyed, curious sister becomes intoxicated by their unfamiliar surroundings. When she asks Luella if she plans to return a borrowed headscarf to its rightful owner, Luella says no: “Never. I want to remember today in every boring minute of my boring life.” She isn’t worried that her parents might send her, like other girls they’ve known, to a notorious local reform school for wayward girls. The House of Mercy is “massive and impenetrable, fortressed by high white walls like the gates of a duplicitous heaven.” Girls disappear there — sometimes forever.
The girls go home that night, but Luella keeps lying and visiting the encampment, where she makes friends and attracts the attention of a boy. By summer, in the midst of the burgeoning suffragist movement, Luella feels increasingly suffocated by the trappings of her family and societal expectations. Effie is her only tether to the Tildons’ world.
But Luella’s rebellious leanings take a toll on the sisters’ bond. Then the girls spot their father canoodling with a beautiful socialite — “The kiss seemed to stretch for an endless amount of time as we stood frozen” — and Luella is enraged, undone. Effie watches quietly as “she became wild. … Her silence unnerved me. She always had something to say.”
Tempers flare one evening at dinner and the next morning Luella is gone.
Distraught Effie becomes convinced that her parents have sent her sister to the House of Mercy. So she hatches a plan: She will pretend to be a wayward girl, and she will admit herself to the frightening institution. When her parents rescue her, they’ll scoop up Luella too. Then life can return to normal.
Let’s just say that Effie’s plan doesn’t go as planned. What follows is Effie’s harrowing journey of abuse and her parents’ heartbreak. With both daughters gone, Jeanne and Emory endure their own transformations. At first unhinged and unstable, Jeanne finds her voice and strength, eventually shedding more than one protective skin. Emory suffers too, but his sorrow feels disappointingly devoid of remorse; he’s the least-formed character in Burdick’s world, so it’s hard to muster much sympathy for his travails.
“The Girls With No Names” concludes in crescendo so fever-pitched that the last page seems to come too soon. Nevertheless, Burdick has spun a cautionary tale of struggle and survival, love and family — and above all, the strength of the heart, no matter how broken.