Posts Tagged Caroline Leavitt

book review: With or Without You


With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin| August 4, 2020| 288 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 9781616207793

RATING: ****/5*

The way you expect your life to be isn’t often the way it ends up being. Societal pressures and outside influences affect decision-making. People change over time and sometimes love relationships don’t work anymore or just don’t fit. Why do some people languish in relationships that aren’t particularly satisfying anymore? When do you just let go of a relationship, even if you’ve been in it for a substantial amount of time?

Stella and Simon, both 42, live in New York, have been together for 20 years and don’t have any children. An RN, Stella wants a stability and a family. Simon, a musician, still dreams of success and fame in the music industry. Stella and Simon have different personalities and demeanors. Stella is strong, independent, organized, goal-oriented. Simon is laid back and not super responsible. He lives the musician lifestyle— he’s laid back and frequently takes drugs.

“She had given up things for him before. After their first year together, she’d left her job as an RN because it was so exciting to travel with him. And then being on the road got old, or maybe just she did. But by the end of her second year touring with him, she began to feel the need to be a nurse again. It was like a physical pull. She missed having a community of doctors, nurses, and staff that she saw every day.”

It had almost been out of character for Stella to fall in love with Simon— “He came over to see her the next night, and the next, and suddenly there she was, responsible Stella with both feet firmly planted, Stella who never missed a shift, who read books and adored classical music, falling heedlessly for a rocker with an impulsive lifestyle and a way with words, simply because he cared so much about her, Iike no one ever had before.”

As someone who has tried to make relationships work with people who don’t have the same values as me or who don’t have a compatible personality or aren’t going to learn and grow over the years, I found myself deeply connected with this novel. As a music journalist I’ve had many encounters with musicians. I understand the charisma and the draw involved. Someone you might not look at on the street becomes 10x more attractive on stage playing an instrument and/or singing. As a middle-aged woman, I completely comprehend wondering how time flew by and why aren’t I more fulfilled in my life?

On the eve of the start a tour that he hopes will catapult his stagnant music career, Simon convinces Stella to take drugs with him and she falls into a coma for two months. Simon can’t make it out on tour and his band mates find a replacement. He doesn’t know what to do with himself now that he’s no longer in a band. The coma completely transforms Stella. She’s now an artist with a remarkable ability to draw portraits in which she’s able to capture a person’s innermost desires and feelings. While Stella was in the coma, Simon got close to Stella’s best friend. Do Stella and Simon choose loyalty or independence? 

At turns melancholy, amusing, relatable and infuriating, With or Without You is a thoughtful novel about choices, identity, self-worth in relationships and careers and remaining true to yourself. It’s about questioning everything that makes you happy and what you should do vs. what truly fulfills you. It’s a complex and unique read.

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Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt: book review

Pictures of You, by Caroline Leavitt. Publisher: Algonquin Books (January 25, 2011). Paperback. 336 pg.

Think I fell in love with Pictures of You and author Caroline Leavitt’s writing with this line early on in the novel: Now she has a little money, a profession, and a dirt-cheap illegal sublet in New York City that’s available for as long as she wants it, courtesy of her friend Michelle. She yearns for cities where people don’t make you feel there is something wrong with you because you live there year ‘round.

What is love? How does one define love? Turns out there are a multitude of ways to love another. Can you truly love more than one person, romantically, in a lifetime? Pictures of You isn’t a quaint, predictable love story about loss and redemption, it’s much more than that. The compelling novel exposes the insecurities, nuances and rewards of companionship, romantic love and parental love.

In the minds of two Cape Cod women, their relationships were broken and unsatisfying and both women secretly planned to leave. When they collide on the road hours away from their hometown, long kept secrets emerge. Caroline Leavitt probes into the fractured lives of two families after a fatal accident. Isabelle, a budding photographer, must deal with survivor’s guilt as well as figuring out a way to keep moving toward the dream she’d planned. Her life becomes that much more complicated when she becomes involved with the widower and his son.

Leavitt writes compassionately and with honest insight. Life consists in shades of gray. Never black and while. Pictures of You examines morality, love and reinvention. Leavitt does not shy away from difficult, complex subject matter. Page after page illustrates long-kept secrets, unreachable dreams, monotony of the daily grind and the actuality of maintaining one’s individuality while being part of a couple. While outside looking in a couple’s marriage or relationship may look ideal, there can be many factors that make one or both partners resent each other or stay in a relationship because there are few other options. I met someone recently who stayed in a “miserable” twenty-year marriage for his son. Many novels focus on relationships and how to make the topic new and refreshing remains the challenge to many authors. Leavitt creates characters who unfold page by page through both likable and unlikable qualities. By the end, the reader develops greater empathy and has become thoroughly engrossed in this fascinating character study of the effects of grief and deception.


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