Reflecting on such a good book as “In Leah’s Wake,” is more difficult for me than I would like it to be. I believe the same will hold true for most parents who have lived through the difficult years of parenting, the years of rebellion, anger, and the struggle for your children to find a place for themselves in their world – a place that has not been carved out for them by their parents, no matter how well-meaning their parents’ intentions, hopes and dreams may be.
The splendidly talented author of this deeply insightful novel, Terri Giuliano Long, opens the prologue with the following sentence from “The Grand Inquisitor,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky:
“. . .little heart of mine, believe me, everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything. I don’t know how to explain it to you, but I feel it is so, painfully even. And how is it we went on living, getting angry and not knowing?”
Those few lines offer valuable insight into the heart of this ineffably sad, yet ultimately hopeful novel about a family that struggles not to fall apart in the wake of the elder daughter, Leah’s, departure from all that had been planned for her, and scripted to the last detail. In her leave-taking, both emotional and physical, Leah herself painfully deconstructs, and tries to find a way of putting herself back together in her own image. Though seventeen-year-olds often feel that they can take charge of their own lives with success, it is an unfortunate fact while some may have the desire to do so, most have neither the wisdom nor life experience to achieve it. All of this happens in a family that never understood their mutual responsibility to themselves and to one another.
The story of “In Leah’s Wake” follows the intersecting lives of one family, along with several ancillary characters in a small New England town. The book at times feels almost overpopulated with the people who play a part in the unraveling of the Tyler family: Leah’s parents, Zoe and Will, and her younger twelve-year-old sister, Justine. Also an endearing member of the Tyler family is their wonderful pet dog, named “Dog.” Among the characters who move in and out of their lives are Leah’s boyfriend, Todd Corbett, Todd’s friends Lupo and Hope; a kindly understanding police officer, Jerry Johnson – with problems of his own, as well as eyes for Zoe; Leah’s longtime school friend Cissy, and her soccer teammates and coaches; and Justine’s own friend Holly. Each of these people react and interact with the Tyler family in various ways, from kindness to rejection and scorn. Ms. Long handles the large “cast” very well.
Zoe is a practicing counselor of children and families. In addition, she developed and operates a seminar program on “Success Skills for Women on the Move.” By all appearances, she is successful and busy. Hidden beneath this success are, however, a number of problems, not the least of which is her own insecurity and lack of self-confidence. Will is the sales “front man” for a large construction company, who does a lot of travelling. He is frequently away, but generally tries to be home in time for Leah’s soccer games. Leah has been touted as among the most talented soccer players in her state, and there is a possibility of generous college scholarships in her future – if she can improve her grades and continue her winning soccer ways. Will is also covering up a lot of his own insecurities and attempting to live out, vicariously through Leah, the sports hero life that he had been expected to lead, rather than that of a college dropout, struggling musician, and finally a cyclically successful construction contract salesman.
As so many families of today, in one way or another, the Tylers have in each of their own minds, a concept of how their life should pan out, and also how the lives of those they love should be shaped. Zoe and Will have expectations of one another that they do not discuss. Will has huge dreams for his soccer-playing daughter, and Zoe has desires for both Leah and Justine to be educated and happy and pleasing. Since Justine is the scholar of the family, there are certain pressures on her to succeed as well, but as she has not yet reached the age of rebellion, she remains driven to achieve her parents’ expectations, and is dealt with in a much less pressured way. Justine has expectations that her sister will be there for her, and she desperately wants Leah to enjoy her company and not see her as a baby anymore; contrary to her own instincts, she tries to fit in with Leah’s new life, in order to remain close to her.
By the time Leah ultimately runs away with Todd – a nineteen-year-old highschool dropout, struggling musician, alcoholic, multiple drug-user who is on probation – she has finally dropped all semblance of conforming to her parents’ dreams or the expectations of her peers, and has slipped down into a lifestyle that more and more resembles Todd’s. Todd is the nightmare of parents of teenage girls, and the entire family becomes consumed and overtaken by that nightmare, trying to find some sort of happy family veneer that can at least fool themselves into believing that they are a happy and successful family.
The rough waters left behind in Leah’s leave-taking “wake” are what finally reveal to each of the family members, in their own epiphanies, that they had lived their “normal, middle-class American, happy life” only on the surface. There was much more beneath that veneer, and it takes the choppy waves that Leah causes to wear away the deceptive surface of their lives, and bring about these realizations.
This honest book reveals the inner feelings of each of the main characters. You will come to understand them and know about them in a way that allows feelings of empathy for each of them, despite their numerous faults. That is no small task for an author – especially a new one – to attempt, much less achieve. Ms. Long does it admirably, and leaves the reader with the sense that even through the worst storms that can happen within a family, there is a possibility of redemption for them all. The ending is hopeful, but also leaves you unsure as to the ultimate outcome. I particularly like that sort of ending – it stirs my own imagination and causes me to consider myself in the situations the book illustrates so beautifully. When I closed the book on the story, I was reminded of another quotation from a different Russian author – Leo Tolstoy. Chapter one, line one of “Anna Karenina:”
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Each in their own way, yes, but with similarities that can illuminate our own happiness or lack of it. I hope that each of you will take the opportunity to read “In Leah’s Wake.” There is much to ponder and reflect upon as you become absorbed in the Tylers’ story. Terri Giuliano Long’s book is a very satisfying read, filled with the abundance of enough. . .
Please vote for my blog in the traffic-breaker poll for this tour. The blogger with the most votes wins a free promotional twitterview and a special winner’s badge. I want that to be me! You can vote in the poll by visiting the official In Leah’s Wake blog tour page and scrolling all the way to the bottom. My blog, “Reflections From a Cloudy Mirror” will be on the list.
The next word for the book give-away is REFLECTIONS. Learn more about the give-away and enter to win 1 of 3 copies on the official In Leah’s Wake blog tour page. The other 2 copies are being given-away courtesy of the GoodReads author program, go here to enter. And don’t forget to stop by the Q&A with Terri Giuliano Long Group to discuss In Leah’s Wake (including questions from the official book club guide), the author, her writing process, and advice.