Review

Coming Up for Air

by Patti Callahan Henry

When the inscrutable Lillian Ashford Eddington passes away, her forty-something daughter, Ellie Calvin, struggles to deal with her grief --- the grief over losing a mother she both loved and resented --- and the realization that, despite a college-age daughter and their 20-plus years together, her marriage to husband Rusty has left her unfulfilled. When her old boyfriend, Hutch, approaches her about contributing to a documentary exhibit on her mother, Ellie is amazed to learn that Lillian was involved in the civil rights movement in Alabama in the early 1960s. This discovery, plus the unearthing of Lillian’s diary, intensifies the mystery. Not only did her mother have a secret side, she also had a secret love --- one who was tied up in her activism, which all took place during the summer of 1961.

"Fans of THE HELP, THE NOTEBOOK and THE DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD will devour this chronicle of mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, old friends and old loves."

After reading her mother’s diary, Ellie decides that the only way to have some closure is to find out what happened during that fateful summer so long ago. So she reaches out to her mother’s best friend, Birdie, and leaves her Atlanta home to go to Birdie’s beach house on the coast of Alabama, where her mother lived that summer. The beach house has a long, storied history. Legend has it that the truth is revealed to all who stay there, and their lives are forever changed because of it. After years of secrecy, a little truth sounds good to Ellie.

In addition to doing some much-needed research on her mother, the time and distance might help her gain some insight into her own troubled marriage: “I didn’t know what to do with these disharmonious emotions about my marriage and my husband. There were, then, absolutely no words to define the mayhem of feelings, as if I had become the turmoil and fallen into a place where words and sentences didn’t exist, explanations hadn’t been invented, and only dread and anger survived. I wanted words to go with the emotions.”

Once at the cottage, Ellie begins her detective work in earnest and is able to start piecing her mother’s life together, one clue at a time. Hutch arrives in town to assist her with the task, and while Ellie is grateful for the help, his presence and her memories of their long-ago romance only serve to complicate her already muddled feelings about the decision she made long ago. Was she wrong to abandon Hutch in favor of the more “appropriate” Rusty? Did she pick the right man?

The more she delves into her mother’s past, the more she sees parallels with her own life: “There was a day when my mother didn’t believe in inappropriate or appropriate love. There was a day --- an amazing day and time --- when she believed in only this: love. And when she stopped believing in that, she passed that disbelief on to me and into my life.” The more Ellie uncovers, the clearer her mother becomes to her, and conversely, the more confused she is about her own life.

COMING UP FOR AIR by Patti Callahan Henry is a transcendent read that will whisk readers away to another place and time. Through these two women’s entwined lives, we are treated to a story that is relatable, entertaining and surprising. Fans of THE HELP, THE NOTEBOOK and THE DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD will devour this chronicle of mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, old friends and old loves. Ellie is surprised that this journey into her mother’s history provides such insight into her own life, noting wistfully that “… the past is where I found my present.”

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on June 28, 2011

Coming Up for Air
by Patti Callahan Henry

  • Publication Date: May 22, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 1250007844
  • ISBN-13: 9781250007841