[The following post was originally published on January 31, 2011. If you have yet to read it, please do.]
As a writer Caroline Leavtitt is known for her essays, short stories, and book reviews for the Boston Globe and People, as an award-wining author she is known for eight previous novels including — Girls in Trouble, Coming Back to Me, the rest in Bibliography) — , yet it is as a storyteller of her latest book, Pictures of You, that may prove the most enduring/endearing role to readers.
First, consider this critical praise:
“An expert storyteller….Leavitt teases suspense out of the greatest mystery of all — the workings of the human heart.” —Booklist
And then realize that a major reason for the author’s success is writing about obsession — beginning with her own and turning it into the character’s. Basing Pictures of You on her phobia for driving, she wanted to write about the fear of causing a car crash and killing someone. Could becoming fixated on that car crash and how it affects the people involved cure her?
Although it did not, the idea turned into a novel with its primary theme asking the questions: How well do we really know the ones we love, and how much — or how little — do we choose to see what is going on in our lives?
How appropriate that the life-changing car crash literally takes place in a fog. Here is the synopsis for Pictures of You:
Two women running away from their marriages collide on a foggy highway, killing one of them. The survivor, Isabelle, is left to pick up the pieces, not only of her own life, but of the lives of the devastated husband and fragile son that the other woman, April, has left behind. Together, they try to solve the mystery of where April was running to, and why. As these three lives intersect, the book asks, How well do we really know those we love-and how do we forgive the unforgivable?
There was enough Early Praise to have the publisher (Algonquin) order a second printing before releasing the book a month early.
Fascinating in its depth, Pictures of You is a seemingly “easy read” about how complicated individuals’ lives become when they intersect over a tragic mistake. The author — without “dropping a stitch” on her characters’ insight, behavior, guilt, and grief — offers a multi-layered, complex storyline that never suggests heavy handed, intimidating literature. Instead what she creates is simple, but how?
Caroline laughs at the idea that it’s simple and explains:
“The writer Jonathan Evison told me “‘Easy read means hard writing.'” And he’s right. I wrote about 16 drafts (I’m not kidding~!) of Pictures of You. In every draft, I made charts, outlines, I read things out loud, I tried different fonts. It was a never ending battle to get things right, to try to cut to the core. And it took me four years to do it.”
However, after four years, the novel is eloquent and universally appealing, both literary and commercial.
Of course, it fell on the characters to make it so and the authors tells that Isabelle came to her first:
“I knew she was going to enact my deepest fear–getting in a car crash and killing someone. But then I thought, well who was she going to kill? I couldn’t bring myself to have her kill a child, because if I did that, I could never continue to live myself, and I couldn’t have it be her mistake because thCruel Beautiful Worldat also seemed too awful to me, so I had it not be her mistake. Suddenly, I had this image. A woman standing in the middle of the road, her car turned around. A child running into the woods. I wanted to why and how, and I just started writing.”
Aha, the mysterious ways of creativity become the mysteries of the novel and Caroline Leavitt takes readers on an emotional journey of discovering why, how, and then what? While the aftermath of the accident suggests the need for forgiveness, healing, and closure, the truth is that life’s much too complicated for such a straightforward resolution. For, by sorting through the details of “how well do we know the ones we love?” another question arises of “how well do we know ourselves?” If we lie, mislead, or keep secrets from each other, consider how blurred individual perspectives are. Memories, images, and even pictures cannot reveal the entire past.
Then add the ripple effect that spreads into and affects a small town community for years. Well-meaning sentiments, kindness, gossip, finger-pointing, and even bullying mix together to create a chaos theory. Because, as the author agrees, “when something happens in a blink, your whole life changes. And when your whole life changes, it impacts the lives around you.”
Yet as mysterious and thought-provoking as Pictures of You reads, its most compelling aspect is the author’s portrayal of a family torn apart by the loss of a mother/wife. The husband who only saw what he wanted to see in his wife lives in pain, once realizing he did not know her. The young asthmatic son who almost physically cannot survive the guilt and grief he feels for his mother’s death, let alone how much he misses her. And the other woman — the surviving photographer — who tries to sort out her own truths, even though she feels certain it was her mistake that tore apart a happy family portrait.
Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures of You is captivatingly honest and heartfelt. Her storytelling will entertain as well as possibly cause readers to wonder about what they know is true and such truth makes this book a “must read.” Enjoy!
[Of course, Caroline continued to write and now, almost six years later, she has given us Cruel Beautiful World. If possible, treat yourself to both books and enjoy!]