Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book Review: "Digging In" by Loretta Nyhan

My mother, God rest her soul
Couldn't understand why the only man
She had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start
With a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me
No words were ever spoken...

—Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Alone Again Naturally"

I loved this! What a great story.

Jesse was a part of Paige's life since eighth grade, and he was her only love. Often it was the two of them against the world, and she always knew she could count on her husband and their marriage. Then one day, an accidental tap of a highway median, and it was all over—he left her alone with their teenage son, Trey.

"Forever. Till death do us part. The thing is, no one tells you what to do when the parting happens. And they forget to explain that when death is sudden, the parting is actually a ragged tear, not a clean separation. It leaves all the ends unfinished, and they just unravel and unravel and..."

That was two years ago, yet she's still drifting through life. The house is in disrepair, the yard is a shambles—much to the chagrin of her uptight neighbor, whose anger seems excessive despite the number of dandelions and other weeds that have popped up. Trey, now a high school senior, is getting increasingly frustrated with his mother's antics, preferring the stability of a friend's house. And even though she used to be able to coast at her advertising job, a new boss has changed the dynamic at work, leaving Paige and her colleagues to compete for their jobs.

"Death was final, but grief wasn't; it was a dirty street fighter who rose again and again even when I thought I had successfully knocked it to the ground. King of the sucker punches."

One night, staring at the condition of her lawn, remembering Jesse's obsession with ensuring it was perfect and reeling from her neighbor's anger at her neglect, she starts to dig. Putting her hands in the dirt feels therapeutic, but she makes a mess. As the hole gets bigger, she decides she's going to turn the entire backyard into a vegetable and herb garden, which again runs her afoul of her neighbor and others in her perfectly ordered and manicured community. Yet for the first time, she doesn't really care.

She's determined to make her garden work, but she's barely holding it together otherwise. Her son is hurting and angry, her boss is disappointed and wondering if he should cut her loose, and her homeowners' association is on her tail, but little by little she realizes she's the only one who can rescue her life. With the help of friends old and new, and the interest of a kind policeman, she starts to take root into her new reality, no matter how difficult it may be.

Even though you've seen this story before, in Loretta Nyhan's hands, it's so engaging, enjoyable, and poignant. Paige is a tremendously sympathetic character, yet she has her flaws, and it's fascinating as she realizes that some of the things that brought her so much comfort throughout her marriage might have left her at a disadvantage now. But as much as she just wants to put her head in the sand and just mourn Jesse forever, she knows she must pull herself and her life together, for her sake as well as her son's.

The way each person deals with grief in this situation is very different, but some of the emotions Paige experiences I've seen in my mother as she has navigated life since my father's death nearly four years ago. Incredibly, Nyhan was in the middle of writing this book when she lost her own husband, which certainly increases the poignancy of this book and Paige's story. There certainly are moments which might bring a tear to your eye, but this isn't a maudlin book in any way—it's warm and immensely readable, and I nearly read the entire book in a day.

Lake Union Publishing made this available through Amazon's First Reads program. Thanks for making this available!

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