THE BREAKDOWN LANE is much more than just another story of how a family copes when the head of the household walks out on them. Add a newly diagnosed, debilitating illness for the wife, and you have the makings of an extraordinary book by accomplished writer Jacquelyn Mitchard. This novel shows how family dynamics shift dramatically whenever any major change occurs within the family unit.
Still beautiful at midlife, Julieanne seemed to have it all: a loving husband with a solid, professional career, three healthy children, caring friends, and enough money to indulge her passions of ballet classes and fashion. She even dabbled at a job of sorts --- writing a weekly advice column entitled "Excess Baggage."
This domestic picture disintegrated when Leo announced he needed air and craved a change. He had been giving some not-so-subtle clues that something was amiss but Julieanne failed to recognize the warnings. When he announced that he really was leaving home for several months, Julieanne argued passionately to no avail. Leo's mind was made up. He promised to keep in constant communication and to return home renewed and refreshed in a few months.
Leo did not keep in touch at all. Nor did he return as promised. Instead, he joined an alternative community in Vermont, far from the family he abandoned back in Wisconsin. He even set up a household with a woman half his age and started another family with her.
Julieanne experienced various puzzling physical problems, which turned out to be multiple sclerosis. Between her frightening new diagnosis and Leo's abandonment of their family, Julieanne felt overwhelmed. At times she became quite ill and helpless, taking to her bed. This often left Gabe, Caroline, and Aury to fend for themselves. They got some help from Julieanne's best friend, Cathy, and Leo's aging parents, who were horrified by their son's bizarre behavior.
Teenager Gabe became his mother's rock. He looked after preschooler Aury and became a surrogate father figure to her. Gabe struggled with a serious learning disability that made school seem like torture for him. Reading was difficult for him but he could easily write. Together Gabe and Cathy often wrote Julieanne's advice column. Caroline, a self-absorbed teenager, was little help. She was seldom home and tried to ignore the problems that threatened to overwhelm her family.
However, it was Caroline who approached Gabe with the daring idea of finding their father. She felt sure she could talk Leo into returning home once he was aware just how badly they all needed him. So Gabe and Caroline concocted a series of lies, sharing their real plans with only one adult (Cathy) and embarked upon the journey from Wisconsin to New England. Their trip had several unexpected hazards, but they did locate Leo who wasn't exactly thrilled to be reminded of his family back in Wisconsin.
What choices Gabe made about his future, which parent Caroline decided to live with, how Julieanne adapted to her illness and her future, and how the family dynamics changed after Leo left, are told through two perspectives: Julieanne narrating in the first person, interspersed with entries from Gabe's journal.
THE BREAKDOWN LANE is hardly a gloom and doom story that leaves the reader in a mental funk. Several characters actually become energized and strengthened by adversity. And there are successes, as when Julieanne's advice column becomes syndicated and Gabe learns to trust his instincts. The main theme of the story --- that we own what happens to us and thus can choose not to be victims --- makes this a book to remember long after we've read it.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on December 23, 2010
The Breakdown Lane