Céline Keating’s Layla is a spell-binding coming-of-age novel that brings to life the political activism of the 1960s and the toll it takes on one family. Intricately plotted and exquisitely written, the story opens with Layla’s dying mother sending her on a cross-country trip to learn about the father she has never known. From New York to San Francisco, Layla follows a chain of letters that her mother had just sent to her 1960s activist friends, asking each of them to welcome Layla, tell her specific facts about her parents, but nothing further, and then to send her on to the friend who is the next link in the information chain. Gradually, from conversations, newspaper clippings, and her father’s notebooks, she learns facts about her parents that shock her and raise fundamental questions about her family and her childhood.
Without spoiling the unfolding of this heart-rending plot, it can be said that, over time, Layla emerges with a new appreciation for the activism that had been at the center of her parents’ lives. Most strikingly, Keating manages to create this heartfelt, moving transformation without a whiff of sentimentality. At the heart of the novel is Layla’s authenticity. That is Keating’s ultimate triumph.