A tale of a mother's loss and the journey to find herself, the latest offering from bestselling American novelist Lisa Genova is a gentle, meandering story punctuated by moments of stunning emotional brilliance.
Picking up on similar themes in her previous works, Still Alice and Left Neglected, Genova tells the story of a grieving mother, Olivia, who has just lost her eight-year-old autistic son Anthony.
Trying to escape the pitying stares and painful reminders of home, she escapes to the family summerhouse on Nantucket after her marriage falls apart. Here she wanders the island in isolation, recounting her life with Anthony through journal entries as she seeks to understand why her son lived and was taken from her so soon.
At the same time, Beth, a mother of three daughters discovers her husband's affair and is wrestling with her own past. Attempting to regain a part of who she was, she sets to writing a novel about an autistic boy and the world he inhabits. Through a series of uncomplicated events, the two women eventually cross paths and Olivia discovers the voice of her dead son written in the pages of Beth's manuscript.
Though the novel requires a small suspension of belief that the ghost of Anthony is trying to contact his mother through another woman, the overall story is beautiful and touching and there is more than one scene that will have you reaching for the tissue box.
Some of the story's best moments come when Olivia describes her life with Anthony and the pain, jealousy, anger and gamut of other emotions a mother experiences when raising an autistic child.
Genova also extends the autism theme by showing us passages of Beth's novel. At first her "book" feels a bit cumbersome with abstract passages like "I am air turning into energy inside bodies, becoming pieces of what is living inside." But as she continues, she presents a fascinating look into the mind of the autistic child when describing things like Anthony's obsession with collecting white rocks from the beach or why two French toast sticks for breakfast instead of the usual three is cause for a meltdown.
The descriptions of autism feel authentic, and the reader does come away with a better understanding of how the autistic brain works.
The faults come from a lack of energy during some scenes in the book. Olivia is constantly wandering the beach, picking up rocks, staring in to the ocean and observing the island's tourists. Thankfully, these passages are in the minority and do not affect the overall enjoyment of the story.
As her story progresses, it seems as though there is little chance Genova will be able to provide a satisfactory answer to Olivia's grand question of why Anthony was given to her and taken so soon. And yet Genova's ending is absolutely beautiful and satisfying.
Fans of Genova's previous novels and new readers alike will find comfort in the beauty of her prose and ability to create profound emotional moments.
Nisha Tuli is a Winnipeg writer and mother.