In With Love from the Inside, a book about a woman awaiting execution on death row for the murder of her infant son, author Angela Pisel explores the limits of family ties and the harm born from shame and lies. Putting aside a reader’s personal stance on the death penalty, the story manages to evoke empathy and regret, a feat even more impressive given some unlikeable characters and unlikely plot points.
The story kicks off with Grace’s execution date looming. She maintains her innocence while struggling to remain hopeful that her lawyer will find a way out for her in the face of a judicial system intent on swift justice. Meanwhile, her affluent (but inexplicably jobless) daughter Sophie finds little to be happy about, stewing in her shame over her mother’s actions and the lies she herself has told to her husband and others to hide the tragic events of her past. Learning a date has been set for her mother’s execution shocks Sophie into reexamining her decision to cut herself off from Grace, and her soul searching leads her on a path to confronting the truth and her mother.
With chapters alternating between first-person narration by Grace and third-person limited narration focused on Sophie, it’s clear that Pisel wants readers to sit in Grace’s skin. Through Grace, we feel what it’s like to be accused of murdering your child, to be surrounded by and afraid of imbalanced and traumatized murderers, to try to hang on to hope when all hopes are dwindling.
Grace was the wife of a preacher and her faith plays a central role in how she deals with her circumstances. Some readers may be turned off by this, but Pisel manages to portray Grace’s reliance on her faith without preaching. In fact, while Grace prays and reads her Bible, she doesn’t seem to evangelize to her cohorts; rather, she strives to show them understanding, love, and forgiveness. She’s also imperfect. During one heartbreaking moment, she stays silent to avoid violence instead of speaking the truth, with dreadful consequences.
Grace’s daughter Sophie, on the other hand, is unsympathetic and hugely imperfect, although it’s not clear that is what Pisel intended. While one can understand the shame and loss Sophie experienced after her brother’s death and her mother’s conviction, she seems to believe this means the world should revolve around her, even when those close to her—her husband Thomas, her friend Mindy—are going through very difficult circumstances themselves. Her self-pity party knows no end:
“Sophie knew things Thomas would never know…like the wrenching smell of feces and the shape it takes when rubbed on a dingy prison wall.”
Queue the violins.
“Sophie’s real life had taught her lessons you couldn’t pay to learn.”
She also behaves in ways that don’t make any sense, like suspecting her husband might be cheating on her but not confronting him when given the perfect opportunity, or leaving town with only a vague note to Thomas that she needed to work some things out. There are other plot points in the book that stretched into That Makes No Sense Territory; for example, when her husband dies years after she is convicted, Grace uses his life insurance money to keep their house up (utilities, etc.), even though no one lives there—or plans to—for years.
These head-scratchers are balanced with pleasant surprises. In Thomas, Pisel tosses aside the husband/boyfriend trope of a selfish jerk who holds the female protagonist back. And Pisel does an excellent job of keeping readers in suspense regarding Grace’s chances of exoneration.
Readers able to put aside their disbelief and wade through Sophie’s bad behavior will find With Love from the Inside to be an entertaining and thought-provoking debut teeming with discussion topics for their next book club.
My rating: 2 ½ Stars (A bit better than okay)
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.