Caroline Leavitt's ninth novel, Pictures of You (Algonquin Books), drew me into the fractured and lonely lives of two strong women who are about to collide, literally and figuratively, from the first page. There's the gamine, independent, creative spirit Isabelle, who's running away as fast as she can from her marriage, having found out recently that her childhood sweetheart has been cheating on her. And there's the mysterious, nervous, frayed and saddened April, who has let the heavy fog on the road get the better of her, and stands caught in the final moment of her existence as her young son runs screaming into the woods. We don't know - yet - what has drawn April there and why she doesn't run from the scene.
Leavitt's formidable skill as a writer is evident from beginning to end as we piece these lives together to find out what brought them to this world-ending moment. It's like a somberly beautiful mystery that unfolds like a dark flower until we see the glowing heart. The characters are fully drawn and we immediately feel we know them, perhaps better than the people we spend our everyday lives with.
Starting with Chapter Two, April is gone forever and Isabelle's life is irrevocably changed as the unwilling, and frankly innocent, instrument of her demise. It's an age-old story of great love and great loss that is told in these pages, but deftly woven and in a way that makes it almost impossible to stop reading until you reach the end. The scene is a small beach town on Cape Cod, so real you can practically smell the ocean and feel the sand that somehow gets into everything.
The four characters who inhabit the crux of the story (besides April and Isabelle) also include Charlie - April's newly widowed husband - and Sam, their nine year old severely asthmatic son. As the car accident fades into the past like a huge purplish bruise for all concerned, the plot twists and turns lead the characters - and us - into unexpected revelations. How these characters eventually intersect after the car crash is something I don't want to spoil for new readers but suffice it to say that this story will be with you for a very long time.
In particular, young Sam is beautifully and perspicaciously drawn as we watch his shock from the death of his mother turn into a protective shell around his feelings. It's as if Leavitt has a special looking-glass device that accurately shows what it's like to be nine years old and frightened out of your wits but trying to hang onto the shreds of reality, and the tentative first steps out of that horrible pain.
How well do we really know our loved ones is the heated center of this story. Leavitt tells a haunted yet revelatory tale and resists the urge to end it neatly - instead it has the unmistakable agony and glory of real people living real lives.
For more information about this book (available everywhere) and on Caroline, visit her website.