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Mercury by Amy Jo Burns
Literary fiction

Mercury

by Amy Jo Burns

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Quick take

Brimming with family drama and small-town secrets, a touching ode to a struggling but resilient blue-collar America.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MultipleNarrators

    Multiple viewpoints

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SlowRead

    Slow build

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FamilyDrama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Rural_update

    Rural

Synopsis

It’s 1990 and seventeen-year-old Marley West is blazing into the river valley town of Mercury, Pennsylvania. A perpetual loner, she seeks a place at someone’s table and a family of her own. The first thing she sees when she arrives in town is three men standing on a rooftop. Their silhouettes blot out the sun.

The Joseph brothers become Marley’s whole world before she can blink. Soon, she is young wife to one, The One Who Got Away to another, and adopted mother to them all. As their own mother fades away and their roofing business crumbles under the weight of their unwieldy father’s inflated ego, Marley steps in to shepherd these unruly men. Years later, an eerie discovery in the church attic causes old wounds to resurface and suddenly the family’s survival hangs in the balance. With Marley as their light, the Joseph brothers must decide whether they can save the family they’ve always known—or whether together they can build something stronger in its place.

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Content warning

This book contains scenes that depict miscarriage.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Mercury.
Mercury

1.

Waylon Joseph crouched behind Mercury’s ballfield bleachers on the south end of town, smoking a cigarette and hiding from his wife.

A day moon hung in the June sky as a crop of boys played a baseball game beneath it. Tiny mitts waved in the air as the ball soared wide. The rest of the park stooped beyond the field—a moldering pond, a slanted gazebo. I-80 beckoned just down the road and past the cedar trees, and yet Way couldn’t hear even one truck’s sorry bellow as it sped past.

The air around him felt thick, like honey and longing.

Waylon tapped the edge of his Salem with his finger, and ash fluttered to the dirt. Today, he told himself. Today you have to tell her. He’d said the same thing yesterday. The day before, too. Every day since he’d visited the bank.

Marley appeared between the bleachers’ rusted planks—the burnt-orange patina slicing her right through her middle. In her pink coach’s ball cap and cutoff jeans, she didn’t look a day past eighteen, when Waylon had fallen in love with her. She’d been somebody else’s high school sweetheart back then. Now, her auburn hair tangled in the breeze as she hoisted her hand toward the sky, and a field of eight-year-old boys waited for her to speak.

“Look alive,” she called toward the outfield.

A crack split the air as the other team’s batter hit a pop-up. The center fielder snatched the ball, and the inning ended.

Way leaned his forehead against the bleacher’s hot metal. It had taken only two words from Marley’s mouth to snap the boys to attention. She had such sway, and she couldn’t even see it. In the last eight years, so much of their marriage had become about power—who had it, who gave it away. A slippery, constant leveling of the scales.

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Why I love it

Families are messy, complicated things. I am always excited to read stories that capture their multifaceted nature.

This engrossing novel follows the travails of the first family of Mercury, PA. It starts simply, “‘Look alive,’ she called toward the outfield.” A coach’s encouragement and a mother’s dearest wish. But in the rust-belt town of Mercury in 1999, Marley’s hope is not a certainty. Times are tough. And the family Marley married into doesn’t make anything easier. Their roofing business is struggling, their patriarch is raging, and long-held secrets wait just beneath the surface.

A generation later, Marley and her mother-in-law still do the “woman’s work” of keeping the family fed, dressed, uplifted. Marley’s husband Waylon is a stoic. He’s “the strong one” of his three brothers, repairing roofs as well as the damage his dad does all over town. His brothers and his father, his mom and his wife balance on his shoulders; he carries the literal and emotional weight. He and Marly are well matched in compassion and fortitude, but people can only take so much. When the family’s long-held secrets begin to emerge, fissures quickly erupt.

Mercury is a novel for our times. I had to keep reading, not only to marvel at how true-to-life Amy Jo Burns had made this story—how familiar these people are to anyone with a messy family—but to see how this particular family’s secrets change them. I’m still thinking about them, about us, and hoping for a better tomorrow.

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Member ratings (4,718)

  • Melissa M.

    Westlake, OH

    I feel like I know this story. I’m from a small Midwest town and know families like this. It’s all relatable to me. I love how strong the young main character is. She just keeps pushing through.

  • Emily A.

    Whitman, MA

    This was a great book about the unconditional love you have for your family. Despite any & all differences, your siblings were given to you for a reason. & it’s never too late to make your own family.

  • Mia J.

    Raleigh, NC

    Best books I’ve read in a while. The characters were flawed, but real. Their relationships were complicated. With so many books in this genre it could have ended with tears & tragedy but instead hope.

  • Heather E.

    Albion , NY

    I hate that I don’t have nearly enough characters to review this book and say all of the wonderful things I think and feel. Fantastic,complex,dramatic,emotional read. My heart is tender from this one.

  • Dianna S.

    St Louis, MO

    Loved, loved, loved. The story itself -- a tale of the Joseph family over a couple of decades -- is great and had me wanting to keep reading and finding out how all the little pieces of the story

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