Allow me to say it here, even if I’m not saying it first: Lauren Grodstein’s new novel Our Short History will be considered one of the best books of 2017.
How do I know that? How can I say that? Because I’ve followed Grodstein’s work for several years and believe her first novel A Friend of the Family was overlooked—it remains one of the most seamlessly written books I’ve ever read. And because, having read Our Short History, I believe that Grodstein has not just written another beautiful book, but one with deep purpose and meaning.
Protagonist Karen Neulander has fought a tough battle against ovarian cancer, which is what everyone expected, since she’s a tough political consultant. She’s been in remission, a great blessing since she’s the single parent of a six-year-old boy, Jake. But now, in Stage 4 of her disease, Karen has brought her son to Mercer Island near Seattle so that he can get closer to her sister’s family in the two to three years she has left.
That sounds like the beginning of a heartfelt but facile novel marketed to women with a cover featuring a misty landscape, a pair of tiny rainboots, some clasped hands, or all three. We all recognize those books, the ones that tell a version of the truth but rarely crack through to its slimy underside. Fortunately, Grodstein has looked at that underside and is ready to share it.
That may be why she chooses to have Karen write in first-person, present tense. The device is that Karen is penning a book to Jake, one that he can read and take warmth from after she’s gone. This is cumbersome, yes, and that’s the point: No mother, grieving ahead of time, is able to write with perfect grace. If the book were expertly shaped, it would be false.
Let me explain a little further: Jake asks his mother if she will contact his biological father, her old boyfriend Dave who told her he never wanted kids when she discovered her pregnancy. Here’s Karen, terribly sick, living on the opposite side of the country, trying to parent her little boy, keep a hand in at the work she knows will soon become irrelevant to her (and worse, vice versa)—and she has to deal with this curve ball. Grodstein is playing a tricky cadenza, a book-length one, in allowing her main character to juggle these things.
Real life isn’t always the best material for fiction, which truth is stranger than; it can be tough to show mundanity and have it mean something. It can be even tougher to have a narrator who not only has to try and make her son’s wish come true while she’s facing a fight she knows she’ll lose. All of Karen’s history is short: Her history with Dave. Her time as a mother. Her time left on earth. Obvious, right? But a book, a testament—that’s something that can last. Critics who remark on the book’s clumsy framing device should consider that it’s exactly what Grodstein is playing with in writing Our Short History. Is the book the long game? Or is the time here on earth worth more?
The answer that I’ve determined is: Both. And that’s why I believe Grodstein’s novel has feminist power. Grodstein and her character Karen refuse to believe that daily life—Jake playing Angry Birds, Kate figuring out how to help an immigrant, the tiny benison of ice cream after dinner—is less important than a testament, less important than the big issue of mortality. Does this mean that Karen’s opus for Jake sometimes snags on her own discomforts and worries? Yes, it does, and thank goodness.
Thank goodness, because we’ve all read those “letters to” that people with mortal illnesses write, and some are syrupy and self-conscious. “The things is, Jake, of course I never wanted to be a single mother,” writes Karen. “Raising you has been the best thing I’ve done in my life, but it’s not how I would have planned it.” No one ever wants to write a letter to their child to say “I’ll be gone by the time you read this,” either, but sometimes they have to, even if it’s not how they would have planned it.
Bethanne Patrick is the Co-Executive Editor for ROAR, a position she has been training for since childhood, when she organized games of “newsroom” in her basement, and always made the assignments. When she’s not emailing Sarah and Jeet, she can be found reviewing books for The Washington Post and NPR, acting as a contributing editor at Lit Hub, and working on her novel. Just kidding–she’s usually reading, which is why she is also the Books & Media editor for ROAR. Patrick is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.