One of the lovely perks of the job is that my publisher sends me books by authors they represent to read and review. Viola Hayden, my editor at Little, Brown, thought I might enjoy getting to know a special author from across the pond: Barbara Delinsky, the New York Times bestselling novelist who lives in New England. We both write contemporary fiction which tackles powerful social issues through the lens of family life and relationships.
Not only does Delinsky live in New England but her stories are set in my new home and in the places I love: Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and, of course, New Hampshire. The more I live in this part of the world the more I realise that it’s impossible to turn a corner without bumping into a wonderful writer. As the late Mary Oliver proved (for most of her life, she lived in Provincetown on Cape Cod), New England is fertile ground for writers. My dream – once I’ve written all those novels I have planned and once my little ones are a big bigger – is to set up a Literary Festival here in Concord, NH. I can’t tell you how spoilt we are with amazing authors: we’d be the next Edinburgh or Hay on Wye, for sure!
Anyway, back to Delinsky. Her latest novel, Before and Again, is, on the one hand, an easy read: it’s contemporary, it’s written in an accessible style, it has the ingredients of page-turner and a good dose of romance too. The sex scenes certainly left me blushing! But it punches above its weight as regards content.
If becoming a mother has taught me one thing: there is no greater tragedy than losing a child. If something happened to one of my girls – or my boy to be – I don’t know how I’d ever manage to put one step in front of the other ever again. Losing a child goes too deep and too much against nature to be survived. Delinsky imagines a scenario that is even worse: a mother loses her five year old daughter (particularly chilling for me – my firstborn girl is about to turn five) – and it’s her fault: she gets distracted by her phone and runs a stop sign and her daughter, Lily, is killed in the car crash that follows.
This central concept – the sudden loss of a child – also speaks to our paradoxical way of living our everyday lives: we feel invincible, we keep going, we assume that bad things happen to other people. But in the blink of an eye, all that can go. Something can come at us out of nowhere – something that we have or haven’t caused – and change the course of our lives forever. This idea reminds us about how fragile and vulnerable we all are and how little we can take each step and breath, each moment of each day, for granted.
Life for Mackenzie, the mother, will never be the same again: she loses her child; she takes on the guilt of causing the accident; she is hauled in front of the courts accused of dangerous driving; she is made an example of, by the media, as someone who allowed herself to get distracted at the wheel; she loses her husband; she is alienated from her parents and her brother. Most of all, she can no longer live with herself. So she reinvents herself and goes to live in rural Vermont where she hopes to start a new life. But of course, that isn’t so easy. Her old life comes back to her in a way that she can’t ignore.
The most moving and important part of this novel is the relationship between Mackenzie and her Edward, the man she married and had Lily with; the man who she divorced after their child’s death. The title, Before and Again, refers, centrally, to how a young married couple find each other again after a life shattering tragedy: how they have to rediscover their old selves as well as their new selves; how they have to work to build a new life which takes into account the darkness that they’ve both shared; how they have to find forgiveness – for themselves and each other. As Mackenzie states towards the end of the book, the statistics show that most marriages don’t survive the loss of a child. Delinsky challenges this and gives us hope as Mackenzie and Edward find each other ‘again’.
Mackenzie and Edward’s case is an extreme version of a couple coming back together but I feel it acts as bigger metaphor for marriage in general. That, as partners or lovers, as spouses who commit to sharing our lives together, we have to rediscover ourselves over and over again. When tragedy strikes, we are often forced to do this but finding each other time and again as we grow and change, as the years pass, is the work of love – and it takes courage.
Thank you, Viola, for sending me this – and I hope to bump into Barbara Delinsky sometime soon!