The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

Billed as The Mothers meets An American Marriage, Anissa Gray’s debut, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, is a contemporary African-American family saga set in Michigan. Althea Butler and her husband, Proctor, are in jail. Their two teenagers are living with Althea’s sister, Lillian, in their childhood home. Lillian, divorced, is also taking care of her elderly mother-in-law (the mother of her late ex-husband). Viola, their sister in Chicago, reluctantly arrives on the scene for all of the sisters to sort through their past together, and to figure out the future—especially for Althea and Proctor’s two girls. This book, which came out this year, has a lovely cover. Does it live up to expectations?

Jennifer: Well, let’s start with that popular suggestion: that it’s The Mothers meets An American Marriage. I think you read both. Is that fair? Unfair? And did you like it?

Lara: We have such a tendency to compare. If you liked this song, you will like this song. If this perfume’s floral notes make you sing, try this perfume. If you loved Seinfeld, check out the cable-version with Curb Your Enthusiasm. I think these comparisons, while they can potentially direct traffic, often don’t do their Creators justice. Here’s why. Are they comparing these books because they’re all about black families? Black families dealing with incarceration? They all have really pretty covers?

Jennifer: They actually all do have pretty covers.

Lara: That’s true. Here’s what I will say, I liked all three. Dysfunctional families in literature are my jam. I can read them all day, every day. Of these three, Care and Feeding was my favorite, although I feel like the climax of An American Marriage was better.

Jennifer: I agree with your assessment of comparison. It seems very convenient. Of those three, I’ll say that my LEAST favorite was The Mothers—but I think they were three very different books with different concerns. I think this book was, in short, a solidly good read. I was not blown away. I was engaged. It was highly readable. I also found some of Gray’s plot choices well-done and woven into her narrative in sweet, invisible ways. I liked how she slipped in interesting elements like an eating disorder or a Chinese mother-in-law. And the cat. What worked for you?

Lara: The character development in Care and Feeding is strong. The story unfolds like a peeling onion, the aroma and eye-stinging getting stronger the deeper you get into the book. I liked that Gray didn’t fall on clichéd characters or story lines. She creates a solidly middle-upper class black family of sisters who are all flawed and make choices that have dire impacts on their health, their relationships, and their social standing. It felt very realistic to me.

Jennifer: Agreed. Gray painted strong pictures, with main characters delivering first-person accounts:

“That river runs through the place where I was easier to define. The place that made me who I used to be. Althea Marie Butler-Cochran: round, dimpled face; rounding, dimpled body; smooth, light brown skin; wife; mother; daughter; sister; mighty force of nature.”

Each of the three sisters are distinct and interesting. I didn’t necessarily find myself more interested in the fate of one over the other.

What could’ve been better? I really wanted to have a better understanding of Althea and Proctor’s crime. I felt like I wasn’t fully grasping it. Food stamp fraud? I felt similarly about the family history with Joe. Joe is the brother who turns out to have been abusive. I think I needed a better understanding of all of this. What do you think?

Lara: I think Joe just continued the cycle of violence that they all experienced at the hands of their often absent, abusive-when home father. And the youngest sister, Lillian, bore the brunt of Joe’s anger.

Now, for Althea and Proctor’s crime… it was hard to understand at first. The town they lived in suffered a devastating flood. Althea and Proctor were respected business owners (a restaurant) and community leaders. As I understood it, they used their social prominence to raise funds for flood victims, and rather than immediately disperse those funds, they first took care of some of their own needs – I believe – with the thought that they would be able to pay the fund back. I think they got in over their heads and couldn’t replenish what they took. They let down their community and their family. I was more troubled by their lack of remorse. They both addressed how they understood their choices and needed to pay for them, but I didn’t get a sense they felt that what they did was actually harmful and wrong.

Jennifer: I guess you’re right. They didn’t seem to struggle all that much with what they’ve done. Their criminal lives affect their daughters, however — and, even then, we don’t get a sense of remorse. So, as crazy difficult as it might seem to ask, I think I need to ask it: what is at the heart of this book? I might answer that by looking at the title. It’s a great title. Is this a book about girls trying to satisfy their needs under dire circumstances? When there is fatherlessness, when there is hunger, when there is turmoil . . . what do ravenously hungry girls do?

Lara: The heart of this book, I think, is a family hungry for healthy connection and acceptance with one another. Each of them has a past or a present that has been judged by the others or their parents. They are a family that is starving for meaningful connection. The crime, and some of the resultant actions (Althea’s daughter running away), Viola confronting her eating disorder, and Lilian’s strength to confront Joe are some of the steps this family needed to start rebuilding themselves outside of the shadow of their parents.

Jennifer: Is it, then, a bit of a potpourri of themes? Maybe, though, it’s a tad superficial.

I need to admit that, though I found this to be an enjoyable and accessible read, I didn’t find it especially dazzling in terms of language. I liked her plotlines. I thought she did well with character-development. Her writing is articulate, smooth. I’m hard-pressed to find a passage of fabulous prose. I liked the relationship between Lillian and her Chinese mother-in-law the best:

“I lean against the counter and sip my tea while Baby Vi unzips Nai Nai’s coat and gently pulls out one stiff, spindly arm, then another. As she removes the coat, there emerges a woman who’s like a tiny comma, back hunched, head just about at chest level. She’s wearing a white T-shirt with sparkling stitching that says, KEEP CALM AND HIRE AN INTERIOR DESIGNER . . .”

I like this—it seems very authentic and natural to me. Endearing. So the writing quality—your thoughts? Did the narration and language work?

Lara: It’s a solidly good book. More impressive because it’s a debut and she’s not a 24-years-old who just finished her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Jennifer: Hey, now . . .

Lara: The structure of the book worked for me. You didn’t mention that we also get to hear from Proctor, through letters he writes to Althea from his cell. Their relationship seems the strongest of them all. I really liked Proctor, despite his crime. And I liked the tension that created for me as a reader.

Jennifer: I liked Proctor too, incidentally. What have you been reading since we last met?

Lara: More than I realized. I had to check my Goodreads to confirm. I devoured Stephen King’s 11/22/63 via audio. All thirty-one hours were riveting. I swallowed up Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (I know, I am super late to the game with both of these). I read a weird and wonderful little book in translation, The Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata; a book adaptation of made-for-Lifetime movie, The Arrangement by Robin Harding (way too much hype for that one); a couple of books for work (Multipliers by Liz Wiseman and Leadershift by John Maxwell). Finally, I read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. He’s a hit and miss for me. This was a miss. It was really flat. At least I was able to enjoy my book club’s discussion about it.

What about you?

Jennifer: Well, I also read the much-anticipated new Colson Whitehead book, The Nickelboys. Please know that I’ll continue to seek his work out (I’m a fan), but I didn’t love this one either. It felt, in a word, un-intimate. Is that a word? I wanted a more intimate understanding of the place and the characters. It felt removed or distant. I did read a few good books, though. Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being A Writer, not my usual fare because I’m one of those writers she talks about who disses business at her own expense, was pretty eye-opening. Here’s my review. What else? Did I tell you that I loved Leah Remini’s Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology? I wanted to blog about it because I was so intrigued and it launched this crash-course on Scientology, which involved pseudo-arguments with friends. Seriously. But her voice is great, too. And I finally read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and now I have a fantasy of hiking the Appalachian trail. With my husband. No way I could go alone.

Next Up!

Join us in November when we discuss Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Until then… happy reading, Snotties!


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at and her latest book: And So We Die, Having First SleptYou can get it on Amazon right here

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