Fall on Your Knees Book Review

Content warning: this review discusses sexual assault.

There are certain books that are designed to shock people. They stuff in many things that mainstream society deems as (mostly) taboo in order to get a reaction out of readers. Whether or not they achieve long-term success depends on the plot, characters, and the writing itself. Let’s take a look at the 1996 book Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald – a novel that I liked once I got past the disturbing elements.

Fall on Your Knees follows five generations of the Piper family of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in the early twentieth century. They are steeped in lies and unspoken truths and are forever conscious of the tragic secret that could tear the family apart. It specifically follows the four sisters – Kathleen, Mercedes, Frances, and Lily whose lives are filled with ambition, inescapable family bonds, and forbidden love. Their journeys take them from their homeland to the freedom that lies in New York City. 

I first read a plot description of this novel on my library’s catalog page. It was pretty explicit since it talked about incest in the very first sentence. I’m not going to lie. I thought I was going to have a reaction similar to the characters in South Park reading The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs. And then, I discovered that it was over 500 pages long. My next thought was “Oh no, is this going to be 500 pages of one disturbing thing after another?”

Luckily, it didn’t turn out to be that way for the most part. Yes, it has elements like the aforementioned incest, mental wellness, homosexuality, suicide, gender equality in relationships, sadistic vengeance, domestic abuse, and racial tension. At the same time, it’s the characters that drew me in. They all want a better life, but something gets in their way. For Kathleen, she wants to sing to thousands, but while receiving voice lessons in New York City, she falls in love with the piano accompanist, and things go awry (but not in the way you think). For Mercedes, she yearns to go to college and marry the boy she loves, yet taking care of her family was always going to be a top priority, and their reputation in the community was less than stellar. For Frances, she yearns for a life outside the box, even if that means becoming a prostitute and performing striptease at a speakeasy. She too is held back by providing for her dad and sisters through unconventional means. And for Lily, she has visions from God and wants to know the truth behind her birth. It doesn’t help that many of the Pipers either make up stories about the past or avoid entirely.

In addition, MacDonald makes it clear that many of the characters are flawed one way or another. James Piper – the patriarch – wants to take care of his children in the best way possible despite growing up in an abusive environment. However, he guilt trips and verbally berates his Lebanese wife Materia as well as rapes two of his daughters. In addition, there’s Mercedes, who is very pious and strives to take care and to stand by her family regardless of her feelings about them. When Frances gets pregnant after having sex with a black man, Mercedes sees an emotional transformation in her sister. She fears that she won’t be able to take care of her in the same way, so when the baby is born, Mercedes takes her nephew to an orphanage behind Frances’s back. Also, she expresses outrage when Lily tells her that she didn’t want to be cured of her polio.

Furthermore, the writing style is subtle, yet clear and detailed. MacDonald’s prose gets inside the characters’ minds easily and makes the readers understand why they do certain things even if it’s wrong on many levels. This is apparent when James takes Frances to the shed after she calls the deceased Kathleen a slut. MacDonald plays that scene out like a dance. It made me think twice about what was happening, for MacDonald doesn’t lean into the disturbing elements. She simply writes exactly what was happening and the feelings involved.

Speaking of the writing, when the stage version premiered last month in Canada, MacDonald revealed in various interviews that she had initially written Fall on Your Knees as a play because she’s a playwright. However, she felt so emotionally attached to the characters that she turned it into a novel. Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected that since there were more passages about various characters’ motivations than dialogue.

MacDonald also dives into the backstories and motivations of secondary characters like Leo Taylor – the black guy who drove Kathleen to school and later became Frances’s lover – and Teresa – Leo’s sister. Did we really need them? I don’t think so. But then again, I love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and that can feel bloated at times with its devotion to minor characters as well. This doesn’t hurt Fall on Your Knees because it’s a family saga after all, and it’s good for the readers to know every player no matter how small their roles are.

The only thing that I would complain about is that it needed more humor. The book’s blurb mentions how it’s “hilariously funny.” I barely saw any of it outside of moments like James discovering that his hair had been braided and he starts laughing. It should’ve had more humor to balance out all of the melodrama. In fact, I have a similar issue with the 1942 movie Kings Row, which was also based on a book that deals with societal taboos (but with small town secrets as opposed to one family).

It’s more disappointing knowing that Ann-Marie MacDonald is capable of conveying humor in her work. She wrote the play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) before she penned Fall on Your Knees. It’s about an English professor who’s writing a thesis about how the Shakespeare tragedies would not be so tragic if they had a fool in it, and she gets transported into the worlds of Othello and Romeo and Juliet. When I was a freshman, my college put on Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), and it was really funny because of the script and the performers who were able to sell the material.

To summarize, Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald may have or may not have been designed to shock readers, but in the end, it allows them to get to know the flawed members of the Piper family on a deep level through many generations. MacDonald’s investment in the characters is genuine and felt on many layers, and her writing style surprisingly downplays the disturbing elements in a good way. Like the Pipers, the book is not perfect, yet it’s something I admired after thinking about it for a while. If I had to recommend this novel, I would only do so for readers who enjoy family sagas and novels that address societal taboos.

Before I go, I want to let you all know that my latest episode of the Adapt Me Podcast discusses how guest Zita Short and I would adapt it as a miniseries. Check it out here.

Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates. Also feel free to email me here for any review suggestions, ideas, or new titles!

Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: