I’ve been putting off reviewing this novel, as it’s not out until September, but something about having just rearranged all my bookshelves, along with now having a gorgeous new six shelf beauty sat next to me only half full of books, inspired me to sit down and compile my thoughts. It also inspired me to buy more books, but I'm resisting that impulse for now!
Coming Up for Air is Patti Callahan Henry’s seventh novel. It follows Lillian, known as Ellie, through the grieving process after the death of her mother. While sorting out her mother’s things, Ellie finds her diary, which she wrote in once a year on New Year’s Eve, and discovers that her mother was heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement one summer when she was younger. The mother that she knew was a very repressed and controlling woman, so she is shocked to discover that her mother had an all- consuming love affair with another man during that summer, following which, she suddenly married Ellie’s father. While at college, Ellie was in a passionate relationship with Hutch, but her mother’s disapproval and conviction that Hutch was wrong for her eventually caused the relationship to end. On the rebound from the greatest love of her life, Ellie agreed to marry Rusty. Now at a crossroads in her life, with her marriage failing, Ellie takes a trip to her mothers’ friends’ beach house in an attempt to uncover the truth. With her husband strongly asserting his claims over her, and a trip down memory lane with Hutch, Ellie must decide if her mother’s choices will be her own.
Following my trend of judging books (initially, at least) by their covers, this novel has a cover which very much reflects the mood of the book. The big, old house is blurred at the edges, as the majority of book takes place either through stories, or memories. It’s also reflective of the hazy summery beach setting of the novel. Coming Up for Air was a great title, although initially it brought to mind the Orwell novel of the same name, but the name is where the comparison ends! The title reflects the theme of the novel – of a woman who has been buried for so long in being a wife and a mother, that she isn’t really sure who she is anymore, or if she made the right choices when she was younger. It is about Ellie rediscovering herself; what she wants, and how (and with whom) she wants to live her life.
My favourite passage of the novel, and one of my favourite passages that I’ve read in a while I think, was the description of the jubilee. This is something which happens in the ocean in certain parts of America, and like Ellie, I had no idea what this was, or that this kind of thing ever happened, so for anybody that doesn’t know, here’s a description:
“All of them – the shrimp, the flounder, the crabs – they’re all coming up for air. Somehow, for reasons that take a scientist to explain, the oxygen level at the bottom drops too low and everything rushes to the surface”p81
As I’m fascinated by the sea and marine life, I was completely absorbed by this part of the book. The image of all of the sealife just rushing to the surface in such abundance was amazingly strong for me. The entire two pages describing it are just full of beautiful writing, and it completely swept me away. In parts, I was unsure about the style of the novel, as sometimes it felt a little stilted and unrealistic to me – like occasionally characters said or did things that I didn’t feel they actually would say or do in that situation, but by the time I reached the jubilee, I was immersed and loving it! It’s also a prime example of what I’m always telling people – that reading teaches you things. Ok, usually they’re really obscure things, but it’s surprising how often they come in useful!
I may well go back and read the book again purely because I think that there’s probably a lot more that I can get from the descriptive passages that I missed the first time because I was concentrating on the storyline. And speaking of the storyline, it impressed me. Although from the angle of the romance it is fairly obvious what will happen, the parallel storyline concerning Ellie’s mother’s youth was a constant surprise. I found it very interesting, as it just illustrates how much events can affect people, and how radically people can change over the course of their lives.
Another thing I liked about the novel was the complexity of Ellie’s husband, Rusty. Because of what Callahan Henry was trying to do, it would have been easy for her to just make him horrible, giving Ellie a clear cut answer to whether or not to leave him, but she didn’t do that. Instead, she showed all the ways in which he could be wonderful in conjunction with his not-so-nice side, and she portrayed Ellie’s confusion about her feelings really well. Although getting a review copy is always amazing, often when I finish them I don’t love them enough to keep them, or I love them, but feel that reading them once was enough. I have to be ruthless with what I keep, as our flat is small, and I have a LOT of books! I know that I will keep hold of Coming Up for Air, and both re-read and recommend it, and not because I straight up loved it from start to finish and haven’t got a bad word to say about it, but because it drew me in in spite of myself, and made me love it without me realising. I will be hunting out her other books now.
I received a review copy of Coming Up for Air from St Martins Press. The novel is out in September 2011, and may well be featured in a giveaway on this blog, because I liked it that much in the end!