Leave Me, the new novel by Gayle Forman, begins with one of those rare first lines that immediately unsettles the reader: “Maribeth Klein was working late, waiting to sign off on the final page proofs of the December issue, when she had a heart attack.”
Klein, an editor at a popular women’s magazine, is a powerhouse working mother and wife who is 100 percent dedicated to fulfilling her responsibilities. She’s simply too busy to let illness slow her down, so when she starts going through myocardial infarction, she doesn’t even make the time to think about her symptoms. She invents excuses for the various things that are ailing her, and when she finally visits a doctor, she’s confronted with the reality that she is more than just sick — her heart is dying.
Even when faced with the news that she needs a stent, her response is not one of fear, but of consternation: “this stent thing next week … Okay. How long does it take? I mean, when can I expect to get out of here?” Her lack of interest in her own mortality, and panic at not going back to work right away after surgery, reminded of “Boobie” Miles in Peter Berg’s 2004 film, Friday Night Lights: “What do you talkin’ about I can’t play? I’m gonna play. I’m ready to play. My team needs me.”
It’s difficult to place this novel into any specific genre of fiction, but the closest I can estimate is that it’s a rumination on the tussle that exists between our materialist and post-materialist affections. I imagine that three-fourths of book reviewers and critics will issue the summary judgment that Leave Me somehow qualifies as “chick lit” and should be lumped into that category, but that does a disservice to that genre, and to this author. This is a novel about a woman, but one whose choice to free herself from the constraints of her family life to gain the peace she feels that she deserves (and rightfully so) should hit home for all readers.
Reading this book made me reflect on so many movie and music moments that were tied to the idea of never being able to attain perfection, or becoming so focused on the day-to-day minutiae as to lose all traces of individuality to the machine that is the middle-age cop-out. If the spectrum of emotional film characters ranges from Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore) in Ordinary People (1980) to William Foster (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down (1993), Maribeth is Carolyn Burnham (played by Annette Benning) in American Beauty (1999). She’s the focus of Pink Floyd’s “Time” (“And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking”). Maribeth is so focused on being defined by her success that she forgets what success really means.
This is the kind of story that frustrates as much as it charms; however, the frustration is due mainly to wanting to judge the protagonist or caution her from making the same mistakes you may have made. Watching Maribeth’s inability to tell herself, family, and friends that she is “weak” enough to have a heart attack or even admitting she is in pain or letting her husband Jason know that she loves him is agonizing. It’s akin to watching Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) in the recent The Girl on the Train film — a hot mess of a person who won’t take responsibility for her life choices, and is so caught up in something (sadness, madness, both) that it overwhelms all other emotions.
Forman is a fine writer, and her ability to inject humor into pathos reminded me of my mom’s Erma Bombeck books, which I used to read all the time. While Leave Me can hardly be described as comic relief, there are occasional laugh out loud moments, but those are often followed by a feeling of guilt, as if it’s too easy to make fun of Maribeth. For example, after Maribeth befriends her neighbors Sunita and Todd, they take her grocery shopping, but the trip turns out to be a nightmare for Maribeth, who has relied on home delivery of groceries for so long in Manhattan that actually visiting a supermarket feels like a Mormon missionary dropping in on a discussion of Midrash at an orthodox synagogue.
She put the yogurt back and looked for a replacement. There were dozens of varieties lined up in the cooler like Rockettes. Nonfat. Low-fat. Greek. Probiotic. Soy. Maybe she should become vegan. Wasn’t that what Bill Clinton had done after his bypass surgery? … Skipping the yogurts, she moved the cart a few feet to the milk and butter section. Butter was out, obviously. But what about margarine? Wait. Didn’t margarine give rats cancer? Which was better? Heart attack or cancer?
There’s another component to Leave Me to consider: its rumination on motherhood. Like Rodrigo Garcia’s underrated 2009 film Mother and Child, Forman’s work takes a not-very-delicate look at what it means to be a mother when you have been adopted, and what the search for a birth mother can do to one’s psyche. When Maribeth leaves her family in New York, her destination is Pittsburgh, where she knows she was born. With the help of Janice, an independent adoption caseworker / consultant (who also gave away a daughter for adoption), Maribeth begins the emotional process of finding her birth mother and so begins to understand that part of her life.
When I first decided to review Leave Me, I primarily chose it based on the title. There has been a wave of literature in the last 15 years that more or less centers on the theme of existential, and sometimes actual, escape. Perhaps I thought Forman’s novel would be like Jonathan Franzen’s amazing 2002 essay collection, How to Be Alone. It’s not, but Leave Me is very good. It’s philosophical as much as it is dramatic, and it feels so real that everyone who has ever been married might see some of themselves in this story.