Friday, May 2, 2014

Book Review: "Next Life Might Be Kinder" by Howard Norman

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me."

Sam Lattimore has been rocked by the death of his beloved wife, Elizabeth. Their marriage was brief but passionate, emotionally and sexually charged, and occasionally tempestuous, but Sam is unprepared for the depth of his grief. A novelist before their marriage, he is unable to move forward with his writing, and seems stuck in a state of emotional limbo. He finds himself blacking out from time to time, and has been seeing a therapist weekly, although their encounters are usually punctuated by bursts of anger.

In a period of intense crisis just after Elizabeth's death, Sam sold the rights to their story to an ambitious film director, who becomes obsessed with finding verisimilitude in bringing Elizabeth's life and death to film. As the director pursues Sam constantly to discuss his vision, and seek answers to his questions, Sam becomes more obsessed with avoiding the director and refusing to respond to his requests, even as he sends his assistant, an attractive Norwegian woman who may or may not be attracted to Sam, to do his bidding. Sam's refusals become increasingly angry, although he can't tear himself away from reading news about the film, or visiting the set.

"I miss Elizabeth sometimes to the point that all the oxygen in the world wouldn't be enough to let me breathe. I just stand there choking."

After Sam moves from the hotel where the couple was living at the time of Elizabeth's death to a small rural cottage, he begins "seeing" his wife each night, on a beach near his home. Every night, Elizabeth can be seen lining up 11 books on the beach, and she and Sam speak, sometimes sharing simple words of love, and sometimes Elizabeth talks more in depth with Sam—about the dissertation she was working on at the time of her murder, the dance lessons they were taking, and one night, she promises to tell Sam the story of what happened the day she was murdered.

As Sam's grief intensifies, his therapist and his friends become more concerned about his grip on reality and his penchant to commit violence. Sam refuses to believe that his visions of Elizabeth aren't real, and would like nothing more than to be suspended in time so he never has to lose his wife. But in what direction will his life move, and will he be able to deal with his grief?

Howard Norman's Next Life Might Be Kinder is a moving story about the power of love and the effects grief can have on a person. Norman was tremendously skilled in creating Sam's character, imbuing him with flaws so you're not sure whether to pity him completely or wonder if he really has lost his grip on reality. I also found Elizabeth's character really fascinating—you understand the attraction between these two people but wonder if their mercurial nature might have led to the demise of their relationship if she had lived.

This was a tremendously well-written book. You really felt the strength of Sam's love for Elizabeth and his grief and anger about her death. It's a difficult book to read because of its subject matter, but it is a very powerful one that really resonates.

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