In her previous novels — two of which, Coming Back To Me and Girls In Trouble, have been reviewed here — Caroline Leavitt showed an exquisite talent for bringing her characters alive on the page. These novels were marked by Leavitt’s tough love for her characters, her ability to find and examine both the laughter and the tears that exist in ordinary people, and her willingness to take chances, to let the characters go their own way rather than follow the path of the predictable or even the desirable.
In her latest novel, Pictures of You (ISBN 978-1-56512-631-2, $13.95), Leavitt gives us one of her best stories yet, a book which reminds us that the best fictions not only entertain but also lead us to ponder the ideas of love, happiness, and fate.
Sam Nash, a sensitive fourth-grader, his father Charlie, a builder on Cape Cod, and Isabelle Stein, a photographer running away from the husband who has deserted her: all three find themselves emotionally wrecked by the automobile accident that leaves April, Charlie’s wife and Sam’s mother, dead. Isabelle, the driver of the car that killed April, cannot find a way to absolve herself from guilt, though the accident was in no way her fault. Charlie, who is haunted by his wife’s mysterious death to the point of hiring a detective to figure out her motives for leaving home that day — why was she standing in a fog on a road so far from home with her car facing the wrong way? Why had she packed a suitcase? — becomes so embroiled in grief by his loss that he can scarcely function at work or as a father to Sam.
Indeed, Leavitt describes the struggles of Isabelle and Charlie with such insight and sympathy that those who have suffered the death of a loved one or have unwittingly brought pain to others may well feel as if the author was describing their own interior state.
Through Charlie and Isabelle we see the limits of counsel offered by others in times of wrenching crises. Both Charlie and Isabelle also have difficulty relating to their parents, who are of little help to them in their pain, and though both are surrounded by a fine collection of friends, these too lack the power to allay their grief. In one poignant passage, which takes place in a bookstore shortly after she has met Charlie and Sam, Isabelle stands in the self-help section wondering what might eventually heal her anguish:
“There were courses in how to make miracles in your life, but the one she wished for — that the accident had never taken place — was an impossible one, and she didn’t think there were any more miracles for her. She couldn’t drive anymore. Her husband had impregnated his lover and her marriage was finished. She was in a dead-end job, living in a place she didn’t like, and she couldn’t leave because she was obsessed with Charlie and his son. Were there any books that could help her with that?”
It is Sam, sweet innocent Sam, who eventually brings Isabelle and Charlie together, and who sets off the forces that will lead them toward healing and a different sort of agony. Sam, who witnessed the accident, saw Isabelle dressed in white standing in the fog and the wreckage, and he becomes convinced that she is an angel, a guardian and a messenger possessed of some power to put him in touch with his mother. Sam begins reading books about angels, and on seeing Isabelle one day, follows her home in the hope of befriending her and of speaking then with April. At the same time, still haunted by this tragedy, Isabelle herself has also begun peeking into the lives of the Nash family, reading about Charlie and his work in an article on the internet, and secretively watching Sam from a distance. Through her meeting with Sam, she soon finds herself growing attached to him and to Charlie, while at the same time facing an opportunity to leave the Cape and attend a photography school in Manhattan.
To say more will spoil the ending of this novel. It is sufficient to note that the final pages of Pictures of You may not satisfy all its readers — a circumstance that is, oddly enough, highly satisfying. Carolina Leavitt knows that life doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package, and she is too fine and honest a storyteller to wrap up Pictures of You that way. By giving this story the long, hard thoughts that it deserves — Sam, Isabelle, and Charlie stay with us long after we have finished the last page — we will eventually come to agree with her.
Pictures of You is a fine novel for book club discussions, for it creates a man, a woman, and a child who are as real and immediate to us as our neighbors — and ourselves, for that matter. More importantly, Pictures of You with its clear insights, its unlocking of the human heart, and its examination of death, grief, and love, offers readers both triage and a hope for recovery from their own disasters, should they be in need of such help in their own lives.
Known for its list of excellent fiction, Algonquin Press had done itself proud in publishing Pictures of You. The book will be available in stores and on the internet on Jan. 25. Highly recommended.
Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin Books, 2011. 336 pages.