Caroline Leavitt has a thing about sisters: her highly regarded 1979 debut novel, MEETING ROZZY HALFWAY (which grew out of an award-winning short story of the same name published in Redbook magazine) dealt with a sister's struggles with mental illness. Her latest book, COMING BACK TO ME, involves a husband reaching out to his absent sister-in-law for childcare help when his wife lies dangerously ill after childbirth. Without speculating as to why Leavitt is preoccupied with sisters, it's noteworthy that she gets the delicate dance of sibling rivalry exactly right: a story thread about a misappropriated locket speaks volumes about adoration and menace existing within the same relationship.
The locket originally belongs to Suzanne, the older sister of Molly, who is wife to Gary and mother of infant Otis. As the novel opens, Gary is spending night after night with Otis at the Tastee Diner in northern New Jersey as Molly lies in the hospital, comatose from a mysterious afterbirth blood condition. Through his musings and further back to Molly's narrative memories, we learn that the two saved each other from loneliness, their tiny family unit a new beginning (heralded, a la Thirtysomething, by fresh coats of paint in the house they buy). Gary is a book designer, Molly an elementary school teacher; their sturdy middle-class professional status threatens their entrenched blue-collar neighbors. Once Molly becomes pregnant, however, some hostility melts as the neighbors realize Gary and Molly are going to "stay."
The couple's happy nesting instincts may have been meant as a counterpoint to Molly's upbringing: she and Suzanne were raised in a helter-skelter manner by lovely and stressed-out mother Angela, a one-time "Miss California Beaches" whose husband abandoned her and the girls early on and she was forced to take a succession of low-paying office jobs to stretch the spaghetti rations. While it's easy to believe that Angela's uneven parenting skills combined with a cross-country move were responsible for both Suzanne's running off with a musician at age 17 and Molly's yearning for a settled life, at times it feels as if there are two separate stories in this book that don't quite merge. One is the story of Gary and Molly, the other of Suzanne and Molly. The title implies that the story resolves in "Me," which would appear to be Molly.
But what about Suzanne? Her story is compelling: what it was like for her to live as an adolescent thousands of miles from her mother and sister, how her relationship with would-be rock star Ivan winds down, her awkwardness with her baby nephew that blossoms into love, her mistakes and gains and small satisfactions as a hair stylist. The portrait of Suzanne is so strong, loving and detailed that Molly fades into her hospital bed.
Leavitt has a real gift for characterization and storytelling. Readers won't want to put this book down because they'll care about what happens to everyone, even the casserole-gifting lady next door --- but they may find themselves wishing for a sequel focusing on the sister who gets so much wrong while trying to make things right.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 21, 2011
Coming Back to Me