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Our Short History

Review

Our Short History

I don’t use terms like “tearjerker” lightly, but be forewarned: You definitely will want to have some hankies ready before you finish, or maybe even before you start, reading Lauren Grodstein’s new novel, OUR SHORT HISTORY.

Written in the form of a mother’s letter to her young son in the months before she will die of ovarian cancer, OUR SHORT HISTORY could have been an exercise in maudlin sentimentality. Grodstein, though, avoids this trap, instead writing from the point of view of a woman who is brave but flawed, capturing a voice that is undeniably tender toward her son but also understandably bewildered by what is about to happen to them and angry that their time together will be so short.

Karen Neulander made a name for herself as a high-powered campaign manager for Democratic political candidates all up and down the Eastern seaboard. She has always been good at her job, and never really considered if she was giving up her opportunities to have a family by virtue of focusing so heavily on her demanding career.

"Grodstein largely avoids the too-easy routes she could have taken, any of which would have resulted in a less satisfying story."

Then, in her late 30s, Karen found herself pregnant after a brief relationship with Dave, a former politician from New Jersey. Karen knew she was falling in love with Dave, but all that came to a screeching halt when, after informing Dave of her pregnancy, he told her in no uncertain terms that he had no desire to start a family. In the end, Karen chose her son, Jacob, over Dave, and since then, the two of them have been an inseparable unit --- and she has never contacted Dave again.

That is, until Karen starts working with her affluent sister to prepare for Jake’s future after her inevitable death. She tries to be forthright with the six-year-old about what to expect --- and he begins to ask questions about his dad, begging to meet him.

Karen, overcome by resentment toward Dave, is at first reluctant to introduce Jake to his father. But ultimately, her love for her son wins the day again, though not without some serious complications, which play out against the backdrop of Karen’s ongoing illness and its implications for her personal and professional life.

Grodstein largely avoids the too-easy routes she could have taken, any of which would have resulted in a less satisfying story. Karen is hardly a saint; at times, her voice is realistically bitter, disgruntled and angry. Her protectiveness toward Jake, and her envy over his nascent relationship with his father --- one that may only deepen after her inevitable death --- also rings true. Furthermore, Grodstein keeps the story realistic by avoiding the temptation to turn the novel into either a romance or a narrative of medical miracles.

Instead, she shows how Karen, in the midst of a project no parent would ever want to be forced to undertake, finds herself beset by additional complications, ones that compel her to critically reexamine her relationship with her son and her own role in how their short history came to play out.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 31, 2017

Our Short History
by Lauren Grodstein

  • Publication Date: March 21, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616206225
  • ISBN-13: 9781616206222