Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein

The disease of the year must be ovarian cancer. Last month, I reviewed The Mother's Promise by Sally Hepworth. Hepworth's novel focused as much on the daughter as the dying mother, because the daughter suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder. There's a dying mother in Lauren Grodstein's Our Short History, again dying of ovarian cancer. But, the voice! Oh, the voice of Karen Neulander is beautiful and ferocious and demanding. It's perfect for the novel.

Karen Neulander is dying of Stage IV ovarian cancer. She hopes to have at least two more years with her six-year-old son, Jacob. As a single mother, it's just been her and Jake against the world, her beautiful son. She has her plans made. He'll move from their home in New York City to the Seattle area where he'll live with her sister Allison's family. And, she takes him there for the summer so he can make himself at home. It's there that she starts to write a book to Jacob to tell him about her feelings for him, her love and her hopes. And, she tells Jake about her family, her job as a campaign manager for Democratic candidates. And, then Jake asks to meet his father.

When Jake's father, Dave, learned Karen was pregnant, he insisted he never wanted to be a father, and even questioned whether the baby was his. Karen left, and never told him she kept the baby. Now, when she contacts Dave, he's ecstatic to learn he has a son, and wants to meet him. Jake and Dave bond immediately, and it shakes Karen. Now, on top of worrying that she's dying and leaving Jacob, she's worried her ex will try to claim their son.

It's all on the pages. Karen's voice is the voice of a mother pouring out her life and her soul to the son she knows she won't see grow. She knows he'll be at least eighteen when he reads the story she leaves behind. All of her feelings for Jake and her anger at Dave are on the pages, "My Jackson Pollack of feelings (rage, heartbreak, longing, sadness, patience, grief, sweetness, murder." The entire book is in Karen's voice as she writes her life, explaining herself to a Jake that she admits she won't even know when he reads it. She won't know what he looks like as an adult, where he'll go to school, what sports he'll play. Grodstein gives voice to a mother's love for her son. And, when her sister Allison deals with her problems with her older children, and comes to rescue Karen in a time of need, they fall asleep side-by-side. "We fell asleep pondering the condition of being mothers, which was, of course, the condition of helping the people you love most in the world leave you."

In Our Short History, a dying Karen Neulander writes a love letter to her son. There's heartbreak here, but the love is so strong, it outweighs the heartbreak. Grodstein has created a mother's voice in her novel, and it's a strong voice of love and anger and fear. This is a book for book clubs, a book you'll remember.

Lauren Grodstein's website is www.laurengrodstein.com

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein. Algonquin Books. 2017. ISBN 9781616206222 (hardcover), 352p.

*****
FTC Full Disclosure - I received the book to review for a journal.

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