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Published by Lake Union Publishing on September 6th 2016
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Poring over a dusty hatbox of photographs in her grandmother’s closet, Emily Prentice is shocked to discover her father was married to his high school sweetheart before meeting her mother.
In the summer of 1968, Jack and Libbie fall in love under the spell of their small town, untouched by the chaos of the late sixties. Though Libbie’s well-to-do parents disapprove of Jack’s humble family and his aspiration to become a mechanic, she marries Jack a year after they graduate high school. But soon their happiness crumbles as Libbie’s mental state unravels and she is drawn to alcohol and drugs. Despite his efforts to help her, Jack loses the woman he loves and is forced to move on with his life.
Now that Emily’s mother has passed away, Jack is alone again, and Emily grows obsessed with the beautiful woman who had given her father such joy. Determined to find Libbie, Emily pieces together the couple’s fragmented past. But is it too late for happy endings?
This story is a heartbreaker. Be sure you have a box of tissues handy whenever you dive into this marvelous story. Personally, I needed a hug every couple of chapters. This story gets you right in the feels.
In part, that’s because the love story related in this novel is heartwrenchingly bittersweet. As we look back on it through the lens of the storyteller, we know that it is going to end in tragedy. What we experience as the story is told is the depth of that tragedy. They should have had a happy ending. Instead, we see bright hope turn to despair on a trajectory that is all-too-easy to anticipate, but was impossible to stop.
The other aspects that will make 21st century readers weep, and scream in frustration, is the way that the treatment of women’s health and mental health, particularly at the intersection of the two, made what was already a bad situation much, much worse than it needed to be. And while we like to believe that things have changed, they haven’t as much as we hope.
This story works in framing story type of narrative. Emily is helping her grandmother clean out the old family house in preparation for moving to a townhouse in the center of town. This is a labor of love for both women, but the process reveals more of the past than Emily knew existed.
A long-forgotten box of photographs reveals a piece of Emily’s father’s past that she never knew, but that Bev witnessed in all of its bright hope and dark ending. Before he married her now-deceased mother, Jack Prentice was married to his high school sweetheart, Libbie Wilkens. The box of photos is all that is left of their tragic marriage.
The bulk of the book is Bev telling Emily the story of her dad’s first marriage. Libbie was the daughter of one of the town’s richest families. She was bright and beautiful and defied her parents’ expectations to marry hard-working Jack Prentice. But she lost herself along the way to a neverending cycle of prescription drugs, alcohol, and increasingly frequent stays in rehab to dry out.
Just like her mother.
In the end, they break. We see it coming all along the way, and we want to reach into the book and shake some sense into nearly everyone. But we have more perspective on what is wrong with Libbie than her contemporaries do. This story takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And that past is another country.
Everyone believes that Libbie is just “sensitive”, like her mother. And that it is still Jack’s job to take care of her and protect her from anything that might stress her or upset her. The possibility that it is that protection that is part of the problem never occurs to people. She is just seen as inherently weaker because she is female. She’s not allowed to work because that might cause her more stress.
Instead, doctors prescribe more and more pills to help her. Not all of them know what other doctors are prescribing, but there is also a definite sense that because she is female her problems are all just “emotional” and pills should fix her right up. There’s never a sense that anyone believes there might be underlying concerns that need to be diagnosed.
And no one in her family wants to even think about the possibility that the stigma of mental illness might be attached to one of “them”. While Jack doesn’t feel that way, he is relatively young and completely overwhelmed. Between taking care of Libbie and working two and three jobs to keep them financially afloat, he is in over his head every second.
In the end, everything goes too far, and their brief marriage is over.
In the present, Emily is left with a dilemma. Multiple dilemmas. She feels deeply for Libbie, and wonders what happened to the bright young woman who was disappeared by her family into some unknown but probably institutionalized future. She’s worried about her widowed father, who has retreated into increasing amounts of work to cope with his grief.
So she decides to find Libbie. In the unstated hope that searching for her happy ending, or at least some closure, will provide Emily with the perspective to deal with the unresolved issues in her own life.
Escape Rating A-: The blurb essentially gives away the story, but the book is absolutely compelling, even though the reader knows the historical part of the story before it begins. This is one of those books where even though you know the what, the how of it will keep you enthralled until the very end.
The way that Libbie is treated is guaranteed to make 21st century readers gnash their teeth in frustration. But it feels very true to the time period. The world of women’s opportunities was changing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it had not changed completely (if it ever has). Libbie is growing up in what Betty Friedan described in The Feminine Mystique as “quiet desperation”. She was supposed to be decorative and not functional, except within the sphere of the home. And it wasn’t going to be enough, with or without her family’s history of undiagnosed mental illness. Added to her mental health issues, she was doomed.
And when the story returns to the open-ended present, it still keeps you turning pages. Emily’s search gets under your skin. She may be using her search for Libbie as a way of distancing herself from her own issues, but it feels like it’s the scary but right thing to do.
Libbie could be dead. She could be happily remarried. She could be institutionalized. She could still be some kind of addict. She could still be angry at Emily’s father. And if Emily finds Libbie, Jack may not be ready or willing to revisit a past that caused him so much pain.
But in finding Libbie, Emily surprisingly finds herself. And it’s marvelous.