Wednesday, August 17, 2016
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. -- Mariner
I can't really say that I've ever read a novel quite like IF YOU LEFT by Ashley Prentice Norton. Maybe what's even more appropriate to say is I've never encountered a character quite like the main one in this story. Althea is suffers from bi-polar disorder and her once-stable marriage is on the brink of disaster. This summer, she is determined to make things "normal" for her husband and daughter.
In the past, Althea has gone from extremely depressed to manic states. Her husband Oliver has always been there for her. When he sees her approaching a breakdown, he's the one to pack up her suitcase and take her to the hospital. Althea realizes it's difficult for both Oliver and her daughter Clem, and she decides to take matters into her own hands. She will be the perfect wife and mother (no "summer girl" this year for Clem!), and she will also remodel their Easthampton home.
Oliver seems to be reaching the breaking point with Althea. When he's around (which isn't all that often), he also seems entirely too cozy with their interior decorator. As if that's not enough, Althea finds that it's not quite natural for her to be an attentive mom... especially when her daughter is used to having virtually no mommy presence. And then the young, sexy house painter named Maze enters the picture; and Althea discovers that Maze rekindles a desire in her that she didn't even realize still exists.
I'm not really sure how I felt about IF YOU LEFT. I read it in an afternoon, so I guess that says something. While I appreciated the writing and the character development, I didn't really like Althea (or any of the characters for that matter except maybe Clem) all that much; and I never felt as if I related to her. But it was more than just being unlikable, Althea really didn't resonate with me at all.
If I'm being entirely honest, I guess I should have felt sorry for Althea... and I definitely did, but it just wasn't enough. She suffers from a severe mental illness that contributed to her five suicide attempts. She's also on a cocktail of drugs that I'm sure are just awful. In addition, she is losing her husband and daughter; and she realizes that she needs to do something different, but she just can't. But despite all of this, I just didn't didn't care all that much!
That's not to say that IF YOU LEFT didn't have some positive things about it. First and foremost, I thought the writing was pretty darn good. Ms. Norton created an intriguing character in Althea, and I do think she portrayed her very honestly... even if it was brutally so at times. I also think she probably did a very good job with handling the ups and downs of a mental illness. As I was reading this book, I realized how awful living with bipolar disorder would be and just how out-of-control Althea was.
In addition (and this one might surprise you), IF YOU LEFT was an extremely funny novel. I will be the first to admit that many of the themes of this story (mental illness, adultery, parent/child relationships, etc.) delved into some very serious subject matters. However, there was so many truly funny scenes in the novel. Some were awkward and some were shocking (and I really wasn't sure whether I should be laughing), but I most certainly found them amusing.
And lastly, I give credit to the author for exploring some really difficult topics. The author definitely didn't shy away from them. Living with mental illness was a huge theme in the novel, as was a marriage on the brink of collapse. The scenes with Althea and Clem were also extremely painful to read because they showed just how out-of-touch the two were with each other. In many ways, I just felt the tone for most of the novel was almost hopeless... and maybe that's why I had some issues with how the story ended!
I do think IF YOU LEFT would make an interesting book to discuss. In addition to the complex themes I mentioned earlier, the characters and their interactions were pretty darn interesting. I think many women will have difficulties in relating to Althea, and the potential for an exciting discussion is definitely there... especially among moms.
Overall, I'm still confused about IF YOU LEFT. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it. I do think there were quite a few positives to take away from the novel, so I recommend it to those readers who want something a little different than normal literary fiction fare.
Thanks to FSB Associates for providing a review copy of this novel.