Friday, August 7, 2020

Book Reviews: Transcending Disaster

With or Without You, by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin)

Several decades ago, I gave up on mainstream fiction. I’d read a few – a very few – of my favorite authors (Jodi Picoult comes to mind) but ignore the rest of the field. My reading plate was already filled with new released in my genre (by “my genre” I mean science fiction and fantasy, which I’ve written professionally since the early 1980s). I’d soured on one tedious, pretentious “real life” novel after another. Which is a roundabout way of saying either Boy, was I wrong, or Wow, the field has improved, or – and – Caroline Leavitt is a terrific writer by anyone’s standards, and With or Without You strikes the perfect balance between deep, compelling characters, thoughtfulness and compassion, and quietly sane page-turning.

We think of a “page turner” as a book so gripping that we simply cannot put it down, and generally that means action adventure, thriller, horror, that sort of thing. It requires heart-pounding adrenalin, do-or-die tension, and astronomically high stakes, aka the fate-of-the-world-at-risk. A story of the mostly interior lives of characters, especially when pacing mirrors the way people actually change and grow and adapt, seems pretty tame stuff. In Caroline Leavitt’s supremely skillful hands, however, the story is anything but tame.

From the very first page, in which a married couple, once deeply in love and now increasingly at odds, have yet another argument, I wanted to know what would happen next. What struck me was that Simon, a musician, and Stella, a nurse, lived as if their love could and would solve all their problems. The present circumstance is yet another occasion for Simon to revive his band’s failing career with a gig across the country, and for Stella to stay home and even start a family. Their fight reminded me of times in my own relationships when the intoxication of love gave the illusion of clear communication, especially about difficult issues. There’s no question of the depth of Stella and Simon’s love for one another or the richness of their history together. But they have never learned to “fight fair” and wrestle their way to compromises that work for both of them: someone, usually Stella, always gives in. So when Simon suggests a return to a bonding experience that worked in their early years – taking drugs together – Stella gives in, even though she has been drinking alcohol and taking cold medicine. The combination of these with the unknown drug Simon provides puts Stella into a coma, and there is no assurance she will ever wake up. Or if she does, how she will be changed. Neither Simon nor Libby, Stella’s best friend and physician, will ever be the same.

I won’t say much more about what happens next because a big chunk of my enjoyment of this book was not knowing how it would all unfold. Suffice it to say, there were twists and unexpected turns, moments I cheered and others when I felt downcast along with the principal characters. I read on, engrossed, until the very (and very satisfying) end. And then wanted to talk about the book, to reflect on the ways we hurt the people we love, how we survive disasters together and alone, and how kindness may not bring closeness, but it makes even terrible events endurable. In short, the brilliant story-telling of With or Without You created connections between the characters and my own life, and rich fodder for reflection.

Which, in the end, is what fiction does best.

1 comment:

  1. THANK YOU THANK YOU for this amazingly thoughtful review. I am so thrilled.