Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Author Salena Fehnel heeds Angelou’s everlasting message in her debut novel, “Nesting Dolls.” In exquisitely sequenced narrations, three generations of women from present to past — Valentine, Theresa, and Caroline — all share their stories of interconnection, loss, and most importantly, the secrets they have kept hidden.
Observed by the title, Valentine, Theresa, and Caroline are parallel to intricate nesting dolls. As each character begins to narrate their own tale, readers soon find that their past, present, and future culminates into a series of figures. Each figure of the whole serves as a different point in their lives that is somehow together, yet separately evolving over time.
We are first introduced to 17-year-old Valentine, the youngest narrator of the three who sets precedence by offering a more literal context to the nesting doll notion. After stealing several nesting dolls, Valentine conceals money she has saved within, hoping the amount will be enough to escape with her young brother, Jonathon, to a place of refuge. After all, Valentine is not unlike Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s creation, the wretch. While she spends much of her life in the absence of love and sympathy, she becomes more capable of humanity than that of her maker, Theresa.
Fehnel then traverses through the work, moving from present to past with Valentine’s mother, Theresa, expressing that even in death, her characters may live again to tell their stories. During Valentine’s narration, readers grow to despise Theresa, but when we are given her story 20 years before, our judgment is quickly adjusted. A product of her environment, we manage to understand Theresa. While her neglect and abuse towards Valentine and Jonathon are never justifiable, there remains empathy for Theresa having suffered at the hand of her own mother, Caroline. Caroline is the first to activate the vicious cycle and, ironically, the final narrator before the epilogue.
Valentine is arguably the most pivotal character in the novel, especially pertaining to her relationship with Jonathon. Possessing the strongest bond built upon maternal instinct, Valentine is able to finally break the brutal cycle in her familial history. It is through her character that the seemingly unending grief and negativity begins to lift.
As readers are given each heartbreaking revelation, we come one step closer to understanding the intricacy of each character. While much of the novel tackles difficult themes of drug abuse, violence, neglect, suicide, prostitution, and death, the epilogue demonstrates resolve, resulting in a final, beautiful masterpiece.
‘Nesting Dolls’ by Salena Fehnel Rating: W W W W W