Thursday, August 25, 2016

If You Left by Ashley Prentice Norton

What They Say.....For most of their marriage, Althea has fluctuated between extreme depressive and manic states — what she calls “the Tombs” and “the Visions” — and Oliver has been the steady hand that guided her to safety. This summer, Althea decides that she will be different from here on. She will be the loving, sexy wife Oliver wants, and the reliable, affectionate mother their nine year-old daughter Clem deserves. Her plan: to bring Clem to their Easthampton home once school is out — with no “summer girl” to care for her this time — and become “normal.”

But Oliver is distant and controlling, and his relationship with their interior decorator seems a bit too close; Clem has learned to be self-sufficient, and getting to know her now feels like very hard work for Althea. Into this scene enters the much younger, David Foster Wallace–reading house painter, who reaches something in Althea that has been long buried.

Fearless, darkly funny, and compulsively readable, If You Left explores the complex dance that is the bipolar marriage, and the possibility that to move forward, we might have to destroy the very things we've worked hardest to build.

What I Say....The story starts off with a bang.  Althea is attempting to commit suicide after her husband and daughter leave for the day.  We discover that this is a semi-regular occurrence at their house, and the nanny calls her husband who comes home and begins the well practiced routine of preparing her for admission to a psychiatric facility.

But when Althea comes home, she senses that her husband might be running out of patience with her illness.  While she vacillates between crushing depression and manic episodes, one thing that never changes is her complete disinterest in her adopted daughter, Clem.  Having a child was her husband's idea, and he is devoted to Clem.  But Althea has never really bonded with Clem, and now finds herself unable to relate to the young woman living in her house.  And Clem doesn't seem to need Althea either.

Althea decides to take Clem to their summer house without a nanny so that she can build a relationship with her, the idea is that if she has to care for her, she will.  None of this is driven by any maternal desire, but more out of a rising anxiety driven by her husband's vague threats of "things needing to change".

In the beginning, Oliver seems to be a beacon of strength and patience.  But then we find that he flaunts his affairs right under her nose at parties, and she just smiles and ignores it.  

And now, Oliver has sent a colleague from work with Althea and Clem to the summer house so that she can help them redecorate.  Never mind that Althea doesn't want her to come, Oliver insists.  It's obvious right away that this woman has other intentions towards Oliver, but Althea doesn't think it's okay to resist since she just got out of the mental ward.

As the summer progresses, Althea becomes enamored with a young painter who is working on her house.  She imagines that he is a deep and complex thinker, and begins obsessing about him.  She spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about him, forcing him to talk to her - even when he doesn't seem that interested.

To me, this wasn't a love story.  It was the story of mental illness.  Althea breaks free of Oliver, gives up on trying to mother Clem, and decides to stay in the summer house.  

She's lucky that she has family money to back this, but this didn't feel like a happy ending to me.  Because when "the Tombs" (what Althea calls her suicide inducing depression) comes back, no one will be there to save her, bathe her and get her help.  

So what's the best thing - to stay with a husband who blatantly cheats, but who is there when you need it the most?  To make yourself mother a child that you don't feel attached to, or to just let it go so that you aren't forcing it anymore?

I couldn't put this book down, I read it in one day, but it was a disturbing read that left me a bit melancholy for the next few days.  It's a pretty realistic read for anyone who loves someone who has struggled with mental illness - which is almost all of us.

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