“Some of us arrive uninvited,” are the words of Amelia as she tells her life story to her granddaughter Emerson. Amelia grew up as an unwanted child from a long line of women with extraordinary gifts; she is now, against her will, spending her last years in a nursing home, where Emerson secretly visits her. The women in Amelia’s and Emerson’s family can see the future, have a deep connection to nature and knowledge about the world passed on through generations, and their spirits comfort and advise its living members. These women were, once upon a time, called witches and punished for their wisdom and their unconventionality. Nowadays, they are often cast aside by society and considered a bad influence.
We Arrive Uninvited is told through the alternating points of view of Amelia, born in 1921, and the teenager Emerson, born in the early 1990s. The novel reveals the stories of five generations of the family’s women. Each of these characters has to make choices on how to best live with the burden –but also the possibilities– of her gifts in a world that doesn’t understand the likes of her. We learn about great-great-grandmother Grodzki, wise and generous; about Kat, obsessed with money and prestige; about Amelia, frightened in her youth and defiant in her old age; about Celine, artistic and depressed, and, finally, about Emerson, confused and in love.
The novel moves along nicely, and each character comes alive in the reader's mind with a unique, well-crafted personality. There are beautiful vignettes of family interactions, as well as of the various relationships the characters establish. The historical perspective on life in the early to mid-twentieth century is intriguing. The descriptions of contemporary nursing homes, with their small cruelties and indignities, are on-point.
Throughout the book, there are insightful observations on what it has been like for women to assert their uniqueness and independence in a world that, for the most part, has wanted them to play a narrow, subservient role. “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” a famous quote commonly attributed to the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, is an underlying theme of this novel.
There is also a promising idea behind this story. There is the hope that perhaps the burden for these women is getting lighter, that their gifts are even coming to be appreciated. This could be because the spirits of their predecessors keep joining forces and making them stronger. It could also be because the world –despite its many lingering issues– has, in some ways, become a better, more tolerant place.
We Arrive Uninvited is an entertaining, satisfying read. However, towards the end, there is plenty of telling of the main episodes of Amelia's life as a young woman, when a few scenes depicting her struggles could have had more impact.