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For a Dancer

Five Days Left (nook book)

Five Days Left

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer (Putnam, $26.95, 352 pages)

At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision, keeping her illness from them. She was in denial in the beginning, as loathe to admit to herself that everything was wrong as she was to admit it to them. But then, after her diagnosis, everyone around her became so overly concerned, so insufferably attentive that she started to regret anyone knew… (I)t was infuriating to watch herself deteriorate in the eyes of the people around her. Use the word “disease” and suddenly everyone will instantly treat you like you’re ill, Mara learned, even on days you feel fine.

Five Days Left is a close to perfect debut novel from Julie Lawson Timmer, whose background is in law. This is the story of Mara Nichols, a successful lawyer, wife and mother whose life is put on hold by a diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease. Mara fights to hide her symptoms from her co-workers and family members for months and years, but eventually realizes that her body is breaking down and out-of-control; the disease is going to take her life. So Mara decides that she will commit suicide on her next birthday. The narrative begins five days before the birthday on which Mara will end it all. Or will she?

(Her death by suicide) was a dreadful thing to do to a child, a husband, to such caring parents and friends, but really, who were any of them to judge? How could they ever truly know what she had gone through? Who were any of them to say they wouldn’t have at least considered the same thing?

Timmer does an excellent job of portraying how infirmity can make a coward out of the strongest individual. Mara goes from being a life-long workaholic to becoming a virtual invalid. Once proud, she eventually simply wants everything to be over with and no longer cares about how she’ll be judged upon her self-inflicted demise. It’s a timely, unique look at the mindset of a suicidal person.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

There’s a secondary character and story that’s not as strong, and that story is a touch unrealistic. But all in all, this is a stunning work from Timmer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“…this impressive debut novel heralds the arrival of an extremely talented writer.” Jodi Picoult

Five Days Left is a heart-wrenching drama about a world in which there are no easy answers… This novel feels as true as life.” Christina Baker Kline

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God Bless the Child

Chosen: A Novel by Chandra Hoffman (Harper; $14.99; 304 pages)

“…an engaging and engrossing novel…  counterbalanced by a few significant negatives.”

If you had asked me a few weeks or months ago if I’d be interested in reading a novel about adoptions I suppose I would have replied in the negative.   However, debut author Chandra Hoffman’s novel Chosen has the benefit of being set in Portland, Oregon which tipped the scales in favor of placing it on my to-be-read list.   It is, all in all, an engaging and engrossing novel; however, the pluses are counterbalanced by a few significant negatives.

This is primarily the story of Chloe Pinter, the director of Portland’s Chosen Child domestic adoption program.   Although Chosen Child is a fictional program (charging prospective adoption parents tens of thousands of dollars in fees), Hoffman worked as an orphanage relief worker in Eastern Europe, and so she knows of what she writes here.   Chloe is a young, ambitious woman engaged to a restless young daredevil who makes no money, and who is content to delay their marriage as long as possible.   As we meet her, Chloe has convinced herself – perhaps falsely – that she loves nothing more than combining otherwise abandoned children with couples for whom adoption is a last chance at parenthood.

All those adoptions where she believed she was creating a family, playing the puppeteer, chosing the right parents for this baby, or the perfect baby for the best couple.

The interest and tension in this story builds as Chloe must deal with flawed human beings, birth parents who decide to give up a child and then change their minds, and prospective adoptive parents who feel like their lives will be over if the planned adoption does not go through.   All of the parties involved express their frustrations to Chloe, who soon realizes that she – like her boyfriend – would rather be in Hawaii, or anywhere else where she would not have to deal with other people’s problems.

One of the unfortunate issues with this read is that Hoffman populates the story with a few too many characters for the reader to follow.   Unless you take notes as you’re reading, you may become confused as to who is who, especially as the characters include not only adoptive and birth parents, but also a couple that considered adoption before having their own child through natural means.

A more significant issue arises when Hoffman is compared (as on the back of the book cover) to writer Chris Bohjalian.   I attempted to read Bohjalian’s latest novel, The Night Strangers, but had to give up in frustration.   Bohjalian writes well but tends to insert sex scenes that seem to come from off of the stage – without context or introduction – and that are ultimately distracting.   They do nothing to advance the story being told.   Hoffman does the same here; all of the sex-related scenes could have been edited out without doing any harm to the tale.   And like Bohjalian, Hoffman writes comfortably about prosperous people – in this case, Volvo station wagon driving couples living in Portland Heights – but fails to be convincing when she writes about the gritty folks who live on the wrong side of town.   Part of this may be due to the locale she selected, as Chloe admits that while there are tougher parts of Portland, there are no truly dangerous sections in the greater city area.

To restate this, the harsh and adult content which is a key part of Chosen does not seem to come naturally to Hoffman.   Tough language and rough situations sometimes seem jarringly out-of-place in this story and require a suspension of belief that may be beyond the capacity of some readers.   As an example, when Chloe is threatened by some rough characters, she never has the street smarts to alert the local police, which would seem unlikely in a protagonist as seemingly intelligent as Chloe Pinter.

It is so much easier when, after the parents have signed, everyone simply retreats back to their corners, disappears.   The adoptive parents into the all consuming babyland, the birth parents drifting on, carrying their grief with them like battered travel trunks.

To Hoffman’s credit, she crafts a very satisfying conclusion to this tale, one in which we find that the bad actors are not quite as bad as they seem.   The ending may redeem any flaws that precede it for a majority of readers.   Personally, I view Hoffman as a new author with great potential who would benefit from developing a writing style that discourages comparisons with Chris Bohjalian or Jodi Picoult.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “…(An) unflinching and suspense-filled account of the pleasures and perils of domestic adoption.”   Los Angeles Times

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Yesterday’s Gone

Left Neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books; $25.00; 336 pages)

“I think some small part of me knew that I was living an unsustainable life.   Every now and then it would whisper, Sarah, please slow down.   You don’t need all of this.   You can’t continue like this.”

Once upon a time, a 37-year-old woman named Sarah Nickerson was a successful and driven executive working in New York City.   Not a moment was ever wasted, even while driving her automobile.   Work, work, work was going to result in Sarah’s having a perfect life…

“Ever since business school, I’ve had my head down, barreling a thousand miles an hour, wearing the flesh of each day down to the bone, pointed down one road toward a single goal.   A successful life.”

Except that one day Sarah was rushing down a freeway when she turned her attention away from the road for a couple of seconds too long.   Her car went over a guard rail, turned over and over, and she barely escaped with her life.   Just like that, she had brain damage, resulting in a condition that would not permit her to see things with her left eye.   This accident also left her with basic paralysis on the left side of her body.   In theory, her left eye still worked perfectly fine but her brain had lost the ability to process its signals and, therefore, the left side of her life disappeared.   This condition is known by many names but is often referred to – ironically – as “left neglected.”

Lisa Genova, a former neuroscientist and nurse, applies her medical knowledge just as tactfully and effectively as she did in her earlier self-published New York Times Bestseller, Still Alice (about an Alzheimer’s patient).   Genova writes with such precise focus and detail that the reader believes he or she has become Sarah Nickerson, and battles her physical and mental conditions right along with her.   Sarah is nothing if not a fighter, a very stubborn one.   She plans to beat this thing, and quickly:

“Thank God I’m a competitive, Type A perfectionist.   I’m going to be the best traumatic brain injury patient Baldwin has ever seen…  they won’t be seeing me for long because I…  plan to recover faster than anyone would predict.   I wonder what the record is?”

Like the journalist Nan Robertson in the recovery memoir Getting Better, Sarah decides she’s going to scam the medical establishment if it kills her, and it almost does.   She won’t give in and she certainly won’t back down.   However, she soon becomes exhausted trying to get a broken-down mind and body to work again and even begins to lose track of the days of the week:  “It’s the beginning of March, and I’ve been out of work for four months now.”

Eventually she views herself as fully recovering and re-entering the workforce for, after all, she’s Sarah Nickerson… But what if she can’t beat this thing?

“I have no interest in accepting or accommodating.   I have a brain injury that has not healed and no promise that it ever will.   I used to have a full and successful life.   Now what do I have?”

Well, Sarah has a son with his own medical issues who seems to need her, and a husband who would love to support her, but also loves the idea of her someday bringing in a paycheck again.   Just when they need the “old Sarah” back, she begins to realize the value of taking a time-out from the whirl of Manhattan life and living:  “I didn’t dream of having a brain injury in order to have the chance to sit and think…  That’s kind of a hard price to pay for a little R&R…”   But since she’s paid the price, she just might decide to take advantage of it.

The joyful part of this read is seeing how Sarah finds a new way of living that makes her whole, at least in terms of her spirit and soul.   She gets to see that life can be experienced without Gantt charts and due dates; without people needing her every second of the night and day.   It may have taken a brain injury, but our protagonist Sarah becomes a person who learns to live and love life without hesitation.

Who would have thought it?   Sarah Nickerson, a woman bathed in Gratitude.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“Remember how you couldn’t put down Still Alice?   Well, clear your schedule – because you’re going to feel the same way.”   Jodi Picoult

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