Tuesday, July 5, 2016
If You Left
By Ashley Prentice Norton
Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt 2016
241 pages Fiction
If You Left by Ashley Norton is definitely not a beach read on a holiday weekend in the most beautiful setting on earth—Lake Michigan.
That being said, If You Left is a disturbing and realistic look at mental illness from the perspective of probably the most narcissistic and self-absorbed woman I have ever read about, with the possible exception of Madame Bovary.
Althea is bipolar and fluctuates from depressive and manic states. She calls these the Tombs and the Visions. The adoptive mother of a 9-year-old and the wife of a rich businessman, she has an outwardly idyllic life—a home in Manhattan and a second home in the Hamptons, a full time nanny, a cook, and a driver. Her husband is seemingly kind and attentive, albeit a bit controlling. He is also a philanderer.
Althea does not know how to be a mother, and never wanted to be a mother. She agreed to the adoption because she knew how badly her husband, Oliver, wanted to be a parent. She just can’t relate to her daughter, Clem, and feels tremendous guilt over this inability. This summer she decides to solve the problem by spending time redecorating the Hamptons house with Clem’s help. To encourage this endeavor, Oliver sends along a woman from his office to supervise the redecorating efforts. Althea realizes right away that the decorator means more to Oliver than just a “woman from the office”, and she is hurt and resentful. The summer at the beach is a disaster from the very beginning.
We know everything that Althea is thinking because her scattered thoughts form the basis of the book. I have to say that I hated her from the beginning of the book to the end. I am not big on self-absorption, but I also understand the difficulties of bipolar disorder and the pall that mental illness casts over the life of the person afflicted with it as well as the long-suffering family. I am just not sure I want to read so much about it. I felt sorry for Althea and sorry for her long-suffering daughter.
Interestingly, we know nothing about Althea’s background, and we don’t know how much mothering she received when she was a child. By the end of the book, Althea is striving to take control of her life and do what’s best for her daughter; however, she chooses to take control by having a passionate sexual relationship with a much younger man. So, the book ends with a lot of sex.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Norton is sure of what she wants this book to be about: mental illness, narcissism, the end of a marriage, an affair, bad parenting—or sexual awakening. I do have to say, however, that I am in the minority of reviewers. The Review Broads thought it was a great beach read and found it to be “dark and funny.” So, I will leave it to you to form your own opinion. I did read it all the way through, and that is saying something about the absorbing nature of the book. Additionally, I saw several people I know in the depiction of Althea, but I also saw several un-mothered adults I know in the depiction of Clem, to say nothing of straying husbands.
After I wrote this review, I read an article that Norton wrote for Redbook magazine. It tells of her struggles with mental illness, and I appreciated the honesty of the book more after I read her article.
"Two years ago, I was pulled under by manic depression. I threw my family into utter insecurity, exposed them to danger, and almost gave up trying completely and killed myself. It took all that I had, but I finally brought myself back from the brink. Now, when I play the simple melodies of family life—getting my girls' tights on in the morning, brushing my son's hair, deciding on a restaurant for a night out with my husband—each one sounds to me like a perfect concerto. Even when we're all dead-tired, frustrated, or fighting, I can still hear the song."