Review: In Leah’s Wake
This acclaimed debut novel from Terri Giuliano Long has been selling well for many months and is one of the success stories of indie publishing. Naturally, I was ready to dip in and see if I could find the secret to Mrs Long’s achievement in a novel about an ordinary family going through some difficult changes.
On the surface the Tyler family are just like any other family. They are well respected in the local community. The parents Will and Zoe work hard, their eldest daughter, Leah, is a star player in the school soccer team and their youngest daughter, Justine, is less athletic but what she lacks in sporting endeavour she more than makes up for in her intelligence, a straight A student. Leah is sixteen at the start of the novel and her parents are expecting a bright future for her, perhaps Harvard, and a glittering soccer career to boot. However, all is not well. Leah’s grades are beginning to tumble and she has a new boyfriend, Todd, who is fond of alcohol and drugs. The Tyler’s family idyll is gradually ripped apart as Leah begins to change and the consequences are devastating.
Long addresses every parent’s worst nightmare as their children grow up. Leah and Justine seem like the perfect daughters, but Leah has become withdrawn, even distant with her sister, and her love of soccer is seemingly on the wane. Leah’s parents believe the solution is simply to keep their daughter away from her boyfriend Todd but Leah’s problems run much deeper. Todd holds down a job but has been guilty of stealing money from his boss and he introduces Leah to drugs, alcohol and pressures her for sex. This is quite a lot for a sixteen year old to suddenly be facing.
There is more to Leah than just a stereotypical terrible teen, full of mood swings and ill-discipline. Long writes the character well in that we may frown upon some of her actions, but at other times we will feel sympathetic. Switching the narrative perspective around the family is a good tactic, offering different viewpoints and feelings whenever serious incidents occur. As Leah becomes worse so too do her parents. Will becomes more aggressive, especially towards Todd, and Zoe drifts between making the effort and distancing herself from Leah. In the background Justine looks and her only comfort is the family pet, Dog. You just want the family to sit down and talk to one another! Also thrown into this domestic maelstrom is Jerry, a police officer, with a story of his own. He has a wife and twins to care for but he is clearly unhappy in the relationship and after crossing paths with Leah, he becomes friendly with Zoe. The novel carefully builds up the tension as these characters all respond to the changes in Leah. This isn’t just about how she changes though. It is about how what happens to her impacts on everyone and what they do to cope.
I didn’t think there was a bad character in In Leah’s Wake and that each one had a lot of depth. Zoe and Will have backgrounds from their own upbringings and as parents they love their children and want what is right for them, but they prove being a parent and getting things right is not easy. Their daughter makes mistakes but so do they. Leah is a complex character and you will despair and sympathise as you follow her self-destructive journey. Justine was my favourite character, the innocent voice of reason, but even she is hit hard by the events in the novel and is very different by the end. What worked for me was that Long didn’t choose to give us a Hollywood, melodramatic and sentimental ending. The final pages are hard-hitting in that they embrace the realism of family life. Bad things happen in families but they continue to love one another, even though some things are impossible to forget or to move on from. There are no miracle cures in In Leah’s Wake. The novel ends with some welcome hope, but it’s a delicate kind of hope.
In Leah’s Wake is a well-crafted novel of an American family going through the difficult motions of a daughter’s maturity and independence. This is never an easy transition for any family and the novel is proof that thing can go wrong for anyone, no matter how perfect everything may seem. Long’s novel is worth all the plaudits it has enjoyed.
(Book source: reviewer’s own purchase)