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Life is a challenge for 36-year-old Kate Cavanaugh, high school guidance counselor to a motley group of at-risk students. Two years after finding her young husband dead in bed beside her, Kate’s storybook life has vanished, and she and her two children are still reeling. Her daughter Charlotte, once a sweet girl, has morphed into an angry, tattooed, tongue-studded teen; and Hunter, Kate’s four-year-old, keeps his feelings sealed tight inside and an empty ketchup bottle clasped to his heart. When a tragedy occurs at the Alan B. Shepard High School, it’s Kate who finds herself in need of counsel and guidance. What she does next catapults her and her family down an unfamiliar road, on a trajectory into space—toward understanding, forgiveness and healing.
Mitchell (Starting Out Sideways, 2007) arrestingly depicts a family consumed by grief.
Two years after the sudden death of her husband from an undiagnosed heart condition, Kate Cavanaugh’s family is virtually unrecognizable. Her daughter, Charlotte, has morphed into a sullen, tattooed teenager. Her four-year-old son Hunter, the book’s most affecting and lovable character, quietly toddles around clutching a ketchup bottle to his chest. The only person keeping the Cavanaughs functioning, it often seems, is their neighbor “Auntie Marge,” a wealthy tech geek with the body of a linebacker and a heart of gold. Kate’s professional success as a guidance counselor at Charlotte’s high school underscores her difficulties with her personal life. She effortlessly soothes the problems of the likable, charismatic misfits in the school’s “touchy feely” support group, but she is unable to have a conversation with her daughter that doesn’t devolve into yelling and slamming doors. Kate’s further breakdown after a school tragedy is painful to witness, but well handled by the author’s delicate description and organic dialogue. The myriad relationships—between mother and daughter, sister and brother, husband and wife, children and grandparents, friends and co-workers—are artfully rendered. The characters give the novel its shape; each acts as a window into seemingly inescapable grief and the strength required for revival. Mitchell keeps it honest by painting multidimensional people whose dark sides she’s willing to expose. Readers will be surprised at how quickly they are sucked into the Cavanaughs’ grief and how much they root for this small clan. The title alludes to the isolation and ungrounding of Kate, Charlotte and Hunter after a quarter of their family is unfairly taken away. Mitchell lets her characters drift further apart, their individual trials breaking our hearts until, mercifully, she brings them back down to earth.
Get out the tissues, but plan on reading this impressive, stirring novel straight through.