White Picket Fences

Susan Meissner, Author . WaterBrook $13.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-4000-7457-0

Meissner's The Shape of Mercy was a PW best book for 2008, but her newest doesn't measure up. The Janvier family takes into their Southern California home the abruptly homeless Tally Bachmann, 16-year-old daughter of Bart Bachmann, Amanda Janvier's ne'er-do-well brother, who has gone to Poland to unearth a family mystery. The Janviers are to be understood as an ideal family who slowly come to confront urgent and threatening secrets in their past; problem is, several family members—the emotionally detached dad in the woodshop, for one—are as stereotyped as the titular symbol of idealized family values. Tally and 17-year-old Chase Janvier, around whom much of the story revolves, are nicely realized; Meissner has a sure touch with their characterizations. But plotting problems undermine intended emotional impact: the Polish connection is not credibly presented, a Holocaust connection is likewise hard to believe, and some of the plot resolution is more mechanical than organic. Meissner can write, but here she has overreached. (Oct.)