Caroline Leavitt has built a reputation for insightful probing of motives, desires, and the emotional gears that mesh, don’t mesh, or can be worn to mesh as lives intersect. Pictures of You (Algonquin Books) demonstrates that human gears, unlike their mechanical counterparts, have the ability to regrow and change shape, like calluses that evolve in response to physical exertion.
The synopsis on the back cover of Pictures of You does not do the book justice. It sets up the bleak scenario of two thirty-something women, both married, one with a child and the other unable to conceive, whose paths cross in a violent collision on a foggy highway as they both flee unhappy marriages. Isabelle survives the crash. April, the mother of nine-year-old Sam, who is hobbled by severe asthma, does not. Potential readers with an aversion to made-for-TV melodrama might hesitate to wade into an emotional journey so fraught with tragedy. But that would be a mistake. The story, alternately told from the viewpoints of Isabelle, Sam, and his grief-stricken father, Charlie, is an examination of assumptions and the actions that spring from them. It’s not a book that leaves one with a happy glow of contentment. Rather, it is a wake-up call to talk, ask questions, challenge operating principles and decisions, to dive below the surface and know the people you love, or think you might be able to love.
Sam witnesses the collision from the side of the road, and in the fog, he sees Isabelle, whom he assumes is an angel. It is that childish impression – like a photograph without a caption – that drives the plot forward, prompting the intersections of Charlie and Isabelle’s lives. And Sam ultimately provides the closure that eludes Charlie and Isabelle, as well as a note of hopefulness. Ironically, however, Sam’s viewpoint is the only one of the three that sometimes rings false, his thoughts seeming too adult for a nine-year-old, or too precious. “He didn’t care that people might say it was impossible. Lots of things were impossible. At school, Mr. Moto, his science teacher told them how light could be both a wave and a particle, which was supposed to be impossible. You could go to a distant planet and somehow come back younger than you were when you left because the laws of time were all screwy.”
But the way Isabelle’s feelings develop – the clash of grief and guilt with the thrill of new love – and Charlie’s struggles to solve the mystery of April’s desertion and to balance his needs and his son’s are beautifully drawn. Leavitt’s prose is luminous and her characters are layered. Charlie, a house builder, takes bold steps, and then reverses himself; Isabelle, a photographer, watches, reacts, questions her own impulses. Pictures of You is compelling, not so much because of the tragic intersection of paths chosen, but because of the characters’ failure to know each other as they envision their lives together. It’s not the portrait of Charlie, Isabelle and Sam that will haunt you long after you finish the book, but its negative. Recommended.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Pictures of You was released by Algonquin Books in January of 2011.