Friday, June 03, 2011
PICTURES OF YOU by Caroline Leavitt (2010) Algonquin Books, 323 pages
The older I get, the more I realize the truth in these words from Tennessee Williams' play A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: "you can always depend on the kindness of strangers." This adage is the force that drives through the pages of NY Times bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt's PICTURES OF YOU in which two women, April and Isabelle, are running away from their marriages.
I was hooked from the opening snapshot: "There's a hornet in the car. Isabelle hears a buzz and then feels a brush of wing against her cheek. A grape-size electric motor sings past her right ear." In that moment, Leavitt had me sitting in the car beside Isabelle, ducking and swatting a stinging insect I could hear. That's the magic of well-written fiction.
With the fog that rolls in and makes it impossible to see anything beyond the car's hood coupled with the distraction of the hornet, it is no surprise that Isabelle crashes the car, killing a stranger. What is surprising, though, is how Leavitt negotiates an emotional journey for Isabelle that involves her in the lives of the accident's surviving victims, widower Charlie and his son Sam.
What most impressed me about this book was Leavitt's ability to make the complicated grief that emerges from an accidental death ring true. And, we witness that grief as Charlie navigates a life of "after" with Sam just as Sam, like most kids, yearns to be treated by his peers as he always had been. Charlie comes to realize that the secret is "You never got over what you lost. You always carried it with you, stitched to you like Peter Pan's shadow...the truth was, you wanted to remember it always."
When a hand addressed envelope arrives for his dead wife, Charlie begins to realize that the life they had shared as a married couple was not what it had seemed. While Charlie is trying to solve the mystery that April was, Isabelle focuses on finding ways to help Sam both face his grief and nurture an artistic life through photography. Facing her own survivor's guilt, Isabelle learns to drive again. Her instructor tells her "People who are frightened, who don't know where they're going, they're my best students."
So utterly convincing is Leavitt's tale that you will believe in the flesh and blood existence of Charlie, Isabelle and Sam and find yourself rooting for all three of them as they navigate the messy reality of life after accidental death and come face-to-face with daring to hope for forgiveness for the unforgivable.