Gayle Forman * Algonquin Books * September 6, 2016 * 343 Pages
Advanced Reader Copy provided by publisher through Net Galley.
Maribeth is a stressed out mother of two. She and her husband, Jason, are doing their best to balance the demands of work, marriage, and kids, while also leaving at least some time for relaxation. Unfortunately, though, there hasn’t been much fun in Maribeth’s life in a long while. She’s overwhelmed and frantic, always rushed, just barely fitting it all in.
Maribeth is forced to slow down, however, when, at the age of 44, she has a heart attack. Her doctors recommend installing a stent in her heart, but after unexpected complications, Maribeth gets an emergency heart bypass instead. All of this is understandably traumatizing to Maribeth. She takes it as a wake-up call, a crystal clear message that she needs to take better care of herself and de-stress her life. Unfortunately, the rest of her family doesn’t seem to get the message, and a week after her surgery, they are back to making demands of her time, energy, and body that she just isn’t capable of giving. So Maribeth snaps. She withdraws $25,000 cash from savings and hops on a bus to Anywhere But Here. She ditches her phone and credit cards, pays cash for everything, and cuts off all contact with her family, including her two young children. For the next few months, she attempts to sort out her feelings and heal herself physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
There are all kinds of things to like about this book. The premise is intriguing. Of course the whole “mom loses it and ditches the family” theme isn’t new, but I appreciate author Forman’s willingness to make Maribeth’s “leave of absence” intentional. This isn’t The One That Got Away where the mom character hits her head and wakes up in an alternate universe, mind suddenly blank. No, Maribeth is in her right mind when she decides she wants to leave. And then she does. That’s a bold move for an author, considering how unsympathetic it makes the main character.
But Forman pulls it off. Maribeth is complicated, you know? And I felt for her. I have three young kids myself, and taking care of them hasn’t been the easiest thing in the world. I know I have definitely experienced moments of wanting to leave. Well, not wanting to leave so much as wanting a break. Parenthood is so incredibly exhausting, especially if you don’t have a strong support network. It takes everything out of you, and if you aren’t diligent about taking care of your self, you’ll lose your marbles. So while I wasn’t exactly thrilled with Maribeth’s choice to abandon her two young kids, I still empathized with her.
And I think this is one of Forman’s strengths. She isn’t afraid to get deep or address more complicated life issues in this book. She confronts this stuff head on: impossible expectations at work, imperfect relationships between spouses, infidelity, child abandonment, evolving friendships, adoption, and reconnecting with a birth parent. (I actually really loved reading about Maribeth’s journey toward finding her birth mother. Speaking from experience–I reached out to my birth father after my first son was born, when I was 29–I thought Forman handled that situation in a very heartfelt yet realistic way.)
So why only three stars? Unfortunately, I think tackling all of these issues ended up backfiring on Forman. The last third of the book, especially, sprawled all over the place. I felt like I was reading a little bit about this and a little bit about that, but never getting as deep as I wanted. And that, too, contributed to an ending that seemed forced, shallow, and unbelievable.
The book is so easy, and even fun, to read–I breezed through it in a couple of days–but the last 100 or so pages just lost me. I wish Forman had focused on fewer issues, fewer characters. I think the story would have been a lot stronger.