Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)
It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.
Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City. Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer. As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return. Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months. (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)
Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake. Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen. She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.
“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay. Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever… Thank you, baby boy. For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living. I look at you and I feel strong. Every day you help me feel strong.”
Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies. But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave. Dave never wanted children. When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying. This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.
Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself. Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant. As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel. (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)
This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work. It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence. In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.
Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient. It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be. She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose. Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.
In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.” Well said.
The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears. It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance. One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.
This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work. It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited. (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.) Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way. Look for it in March.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.