Could it ever be right to walk out on your husband and children?
This is the intriguing conundrum at the heart of a dazzling and utterly absorbing novel from Gayle Forman, a popular author of teen books who has turned her considerable talents to the world of fully-fledged adult fiction.
And Leave Me is certainly a grown-up story… a riveting, emotional rollercoaster that follows an overworked, undervalued mother as she flees her home, husband and four-year-old twins to search for her past, her present and her future.
Along the way, we are treated to a bold, observant and unflinching portrait of a disillusioned forty-something woman confronting the joys, fears, frustrations and sorrows of marriage, motherhood and friendship.
Maribeth Klein is 44 years old, lives in New York and like every working mother she is overburdened and overtired. Her husband Jason works in the non-lucrative end of the music industry leaving Maribeth to earn the lion’s share of their income as an editor of an upmarket glossy magazine.
Their four-year-old twins, Oscar and Olivia, are high maintenance and it always seems to fall to Maribeth alone to run the house, write the to-do lists and organise the kids’ busy lives both at home and pre-school.
In fact, she is so busy taking care of her husband and twins that she doesn’t even realise that, working late one December evening, she has had a heart attack.
Even as she sits in the Emergency Room at the hospital waiting for test results, her thoughts fly to the kids’ gathering planned at their apartment later that evening and what she has to do when she gets back. It’s only when a doctor informs her she needs bypass surgery that the seriousness of her condition hits home.
A week later and back at her apartment, Maribeth is surprised and hurt to discover that her recuperation seems to be an imposition on those who rely on her. Angry that no one wants to look after her when she most needs their loving care, Maribeth does the unthinkable… she packs a bag and leaves.
Far from the demands of family and career, and with the help of new friendships and the kindness of strangers, she is finally able to own up to the secrets she has been keeping from herself and those she loves…
Without resorting to strident feminism and using her trademark black humour to leaven a story packed with angst and bittersweet emotion, Forman tackles many of the ambivalences faced by mothers in the stressful, challenging and exhausting home and work cycle of 21st century life.
Maribeth’s desire to run away from her relentless and punishing routine is one that will be recognisable to every woman who has struggled to keep her sanity and stay the course as she juggles parenthood, work and home.
The difference in this acutely observed and intelligent story is that Maribeth is prepared to go through with what for many is merely an occasional fantasy. She jettisons her phone, her credit cards and her problems to face her fears and her unresolved emotional issues. And so the heart attack that was her catalyst for change is also ironically the route to discovering where her heart truly lies.
Beautifully written and brimming with insight, empathy and wisdom, this is a modern fairy tale that exquisitely exposes the uncertainties of the 21st century world.
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £16.99)