Oscar Wilde wrote that “true friends stab you in the front.” Because friendship and trust go hand in hand, when trust is destroyed by a friend, it is all the more surprising and painful. LEAVING HAVEN, the latest from writer Kathleen McCleary, explores marital infidelity of the worst kind: an affair with a trusted friend.
Georgia and Alice have been best friends for years, since their now-13-year-old daughters were just babies. The two women are very different, but those differences only make their friendship stronger. Georgia is the nourishing earth mother living in a colorful and cozy Victorian house: a baker married to a chef named John and mom to Liza. Alice, on the other hand, is a professor of economics who has built her life to be the opposite of her chaotic and lonely childhood. She is married to the reliable Duncan, and her daughter, Wren, is sweet and sensitive. However, LEAVING HAVEN is not merely the story of two friends. The first pages of the novel are heartbreaking as readers find Georgia, having just given birth, leaving the hospital and her baby boy behind.
"A unique twist on infidelity plots, LEAVING HAVEN is a compelling look at just how complicated friendships, marriage and family can be, and how happiness and contentment sometimes require sacrifice and work."
The story unfolds in fits and starts, and McCleary works backwards and then forward again, following Georgia and Alice and the disintegration of their friendship and their marriages. For years, Georgia tried to have another baby. After years of tests, in vitro fertilization and miscarriages, she had just about given up. Her life with John was good, and her daughter Liza was healthy and wonderful. Still, she held out hope that she could find the right egg donor and complete her family. Then Alice offered her eggs. Neither couple took this offer lightly, but Alice and Georgia were so close, and even Liza and Wren were the best of friends.
However, when Georgia does become pregnant using Alice's eggs and is confined to bed rest, the tensions and truths in all their relationships begin to rise to the surface, threatening everyone's well-being. First, Liza and her friends are caught bullying Wren. To protect Georgia from the trouble, John and Alice decide to handle things on their own. But conversations about the girls turn to flirtations, and soon they are having an affair. Georgia suspects John is having an affair, and Alice, though feeling guilty, has a hard time putting a stop to things and going back to her quiet and less-than-passionate marriage with Duncan. When both Duncan and Georgia discover the truth on the same day, the affair is exposed and, of course, further complicated by the fact that the baby Georgia is carrying belongs biologically to Alice and John.
That the story is told out of chronological order is a bit disarming, but McCleary seems to want to set an emotional stage for her characters and describe the flavor of the relationships. So in that way, the choice works. The prose is straightforward, balancing out the extreme emotional turmoil and devastating choices the four main characters are forced to make. There are several good supporting characters as well, like Georgia's sisters and Alice's mother.
A unique twist on infidelity plots, LEAVING HAVEN is a compelling look at just how complicated friendships, marriage and family can be, and how happiness and contentment sometimes require sacrifice and work. Both Georgia and Alice are forced to confront truths, not just about each other, but also about their husbands and themselves. There are no easy or cliched answers here; the novel is realistically unresolved in several key aspects, which actually makes for a more satisfying read. Readers can trust that they will find a well-told and fascinating story in LEAVING HAVEN.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 11, 2013