Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: "Our Short History" by Lauren Grodstein

If it has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, well then, I'm (more than) a touch insane. Because I keep reading books that are tearjerkers despite the fact that television commercials make me tear up, and yet I'm surprised that these books leave me a sniffling mess nearly Every. Single. Time. And so it is with Lauren Grodstein's newest novel, Our Short History.

Karen Neulander has made a name for herself as one of New York's top political consultants. She's not afraid to leak things to the press about her clients' opponents, or do everything she needs to in order to help them gain advantage and, of course, votes. She's equally protective of her six-year-old son, Jake, whom she has raised alone since before he was born. When she found out she was pregnant, her boyfriend at the time told her he didn't want to have kids, so she left and never spoke to him again.

Now Karen is facing an even tougher opponent. Two years ago she was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, and given approximately four years to live. While she has fought as hard as she could, with surgery and chemotherapy, she knows there will come a time that she won't be around any longer, no matter how much she hopes a miracle might come her way. But she has everything all planned out—when she feels that she's ready, she and Jake will move to Seattle to live with her younger sister Allie and her family, so Jake will be cared for when it's time.

While Jake understands—as much as a young child can—what is happening to his mother, he has one request: he wants her to get in touch with his father. After dragging her feet for a while in the hopes that he will forget what he asked, Karen relents. She's not too surprised to find out that Dave Kersey is still living in the same expensive condo in New Jersey. But she is thrown for a loop when he's excited to meet Jake.

Despite how happy Dave makes Jake (and vice-versa), Karen is adamant about allowing him to become too large a part of her son's life. She can't reconcile this man who is head over heels for his son when he didn't want her to have the baby in the first place, and as the two grow closer, she becomes frightened that Dave may try to take Jake away from her, or at the very least, upset the plans she has made for his future. And she can't seem to accept that perhaps what Jake needs most of all is his father, at a time when all she wants to do is cling as closely to her son as possible.

Our Short History is written as Karen's "memoir," ostensibly to be read by Jake when he is older. She provides glimpses of her childhood and her relationships with her own parents and grandparents, as well as her time with Dave, and what it has been like raising Jake. It also includes "advice" and her hopes for her son, so he knows how much she has always thought, and feels, about him.

Well, as you can imagine, this packs an emotional punch. But despite its ability to generate tears, this is a book about the fierceness of a mother's love, and the need to hold on to her son as tightly as she can for as long as she can, as if that can make up for the time she won't have with him. It's also a story about how we can be short-sighted and let our own hurts take precedence over doing what is right.

As I remember from her previous books, A Friend of the Family and The Explanation for Everything, Grodstein is a talented writer and knows how to tell a story. I thought this was a little predictable, and while I completely understood the emotions, fears, and anxieties Karen was experiencing given everything happening in her life, I found her to be a little more unlikable for a little longer than I expected.

This book definitely makes you count your blessings as well as wonder how you might act if faced with similar circumstances. It takes you on an emotional journey and gives you a touching picture of everything a mother would do for her child.

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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