Patti Callahan Henry has written seven successful novels. Now she presents us with number eight and it is titled Coming Up for Air. This is Henry's most complex story and it is filled with her most complex characters. Her style of writing is more mature in this novel and her descriptions are much more definitive. The people in her story are loveable one moment and unlikeable the next. This is her riskiest novel but it could very well prove to be her most successful.
The focus of the story is on Ellie, a forty-eight-year-old wife and mother of one. She is married to Rusty and he is a successful businessman. They live in the Buckhead area of Atlanta and for the most part Ellie has embraced the life offered her without hesitation. But as the years have passed a need to know who and what she is has emerged. She knows her relationship with Rusty isn't perfect. He is verbally abusive and is temperamental to the extreme.
Even though her life isn't perfect she soldiers on. Then two events happen. Her daughter goes off to college and her mother Lillian passes away. Ellie has had a love hate relationship with her mother. She respects her but is put off by her aloof behavior. After her death she discovers a journal which her mother has kept for many, many years. In her mother's own words she learns of a different person who inhabited her body during the sixties. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and was involved in a relationship with a man she refers to only as "him."
In order to gain a deeper knowledge of her mother, Ellie goes to a town called Bayside where her mother lived for many of the summers in the sixties. She stays in a house owned by her mother's best friend and confidant during that time. She is aided in her search for the truth by her college sweetheart Hutch who is also working on a program honoring Ellie's mother and several other women in Atlanta.
The main question raised by the plot is whether or not Ellie can find herself. And when she does will she want to continue her life with Rusty or pursue a new one with Hutch. Whether or not you agree with the choices she makes will influence how much you enjoy Henry's book.
It must be understood that Henry has not written this story only as an entertainment. It is a serious study of three relationships -- Ellie's relationship with Rusty; Ellie's relationship with Hutch; Ellie's relationship with herself. Each relationship impacts the others, and no one relationship stands alone.
It is not easy to create characters who may not be liked or understood. Most writers tend to want at least one of the central characters to be a true blue hero/heroine. That is not the case with Henry and this book. She dares to tell her story in an open and honest manner and let the chips fall where they may. That is what makes it her most creative piece of fiction and the most mature presentation of her writing skills.
Patti Callahan Henry is on the cusp of greatness.