With Or Without You by Caroline Leavitt
Published by Algonquin Paperbacks ISBN 9781643751436
Trade paperback, $16.95, 289 pages
Author Caroline Leavitt's novels share stories of people facing some kind of crisis, often ones not of their design. In Pictures of You, a car crash causes the death of a woman that upends the life of the other driver. In Cruel Beautiful World, Charlotte's life is thrown into turmoil when her younger 16 year-old sister runs away with her teacher. She creates characters that you empathize with, and feel deeply about.
Leavitt's latest novel, With or Without You, begins with Stella and Simon, who have been together for twenty years, having a recurring argument. Stella, a nurse, wants to settle down, buy their New York City apartment, and have a child. Simon, a rock musician, does not.
Simon is preparing to go Los Angeles with his bandmates to open for a younger, popular rocker. He sees this as an opportunity for the band to break out and gain the attention they have been seeking for the last twenty years. Times have been tough for them, and this may be their last best chance.
Stella is suffering from a terrible cold, and instead of going to Los Angeles with Simon as planned, she says that she will stay in New York. At first upset, Simon tries to talk her into coming, even though maybe deep down, he thinks it would be better for her not to go.
During the argument, they are drinking wine, and Simon gives Stella a pill to take to feel better. The next morning, Simon has to rush the unconscious Stella to the hospital where she works, after she has fallen into a coma.
Libby is an attending doctor and one of Stella's best friends. She is on Stella's case, and not a fan of Simon, whom she thinks is selfish. But Simon stays by Stella's side the entire time, giving up his trip to Los Angeles and dreams of stardom.
Stella's mom Bette flies in from Spain, and she and Simon form their own new family as they wait by Stella's bedside for her to wake up. The relationship between Simon and Bette is touching, and we see a side to Bette that Stella doesn't know. Libby comes to see another side of Simon as well.
When Stella eventually wakes up, she is a different person. She begins drawing circles on paper, over and over. She goes to the park and feels compelled to sketch people. Her drawings are so intense, and she becomes a popular attraction. People begin to pay her for her drawings, and soon she gets commissions for her sketches and draws the attention of the media.
Simon doesn't know what to make of this. All his life he has been an artist, and wanted attention for his work, and now Stella is the one whom the world notices.
No one writes characters as well as Leavitt, and here we see how the circumstances of Stella's coma have changed the lives of not only Simon and Stella, but Libby's as well. People are forced to look at the life they had wanted but must deal with the life they now find themselves facing.
I liked how Leavitt looks at memories that we have of our childhood, and assumptions we make about those we love that turn out to be different from we had always believed. The characters in With Or Without You go through such emotional and physical upheavals, and the reader is right along with them for all the heartache. I read With Or Without You in one sitting, my heart breaking the entire time. I highly recommend it, and Caroline Leavitt gets better with every novel.
Thanks to Algonquin Books for putting me on Caroline Leavitt's tour.
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