This book wasn't very good, until suddenly it really, really was.
For about the first 300 pages, I was pretty sure I wasn't this book's intended audience. Having never birthed a child, I was both struggling to relate to and growing weary of Lupton's rabidly protective mama grizzly of a narrator. I can intellectually comprehend a character who is motivated beyond all reason to protect her children, but Grace Covey didn't inspire in me any kind of emotional connection. Her constant melodramatic lament over how her children are simultaneously so small and weak and in need of her protection and growing up hopelessly fast into little adults grew tiresome. I get it, you love your kids. Now stop moaning and let's find out who the hell the arsonist is!
I know, I'm a cold fish. That's why I thought maybe this book would be better received by a reader who could identify more closely with Grace, who is (as she puts it, more times than is necessary) a “thirty-nine-year-old mother of two.” There's nothing else to her character, a fact which Grace herself admits and occasionally regrets, and quite frankly I was regretting it too.
The narrative structure is clever but severely limited. Grace is a first-person narrator, but she is unable to participate in any of the action because she is having an out-of-body experience. She is a ghost or spirit, floating around while her comatose body lies inert in the hospital. She can listen in on conversations and follow people around, but the only person who can see or speak to her is her daughter Jenny, who is in a similar state between life and death. They have both been critically injured in a fire at Grace's son's primary school, a fire that eventually turns out to be arson.
No one can see or hear Grace other than Jenny—not Grace's husband Mike, not their son Adam (burdened with the terribly obnoxious nickname “Addie”), not Mike's sister the police officer, and certainly not any of the doctors. So the book consists of Grace hopping around eavesdropping on conversations. As I said, it's clever and unusual, but not particularly exciting. And since we're effectively trapped inside Grace's head, we have to suffer through all the aforementioned sappy obsessing about her kids.
So why am I recommending this book? I clearly had major qualms with it, considering all I've done so far is complain. But here's the thing: the ending was perfection. Lupton finally cracked through my cynical hide and hit a vein of pathos. It may have taken a jackhammer to do it, but I'm not a monster. Lupton's best writing in the whole novel can be found in the very last pages. (When I read the Acknowledgements and discovered she wrote the ending first, I wasn't a bit surprised.) She shows why we should care about Grace and her family. She plumbs the depths of love. And for a final touch, she subverts our assumption of the meaning of her chosen title, and the turn is glorious.
This is why I hardly ever give up on books. You never know—sometimes the last 50 pages will totally redeem the first 300, transforming a mediocre book into something beautiful. I may not be a thirty-nine-year-old mother of two, but maybe I am the intended audience for this book after all, and maybe you are too.