It has been a long time since I have read a debut offering (White Teeth by Zadie Smith, 2001) that manages to present situations and perspectives that have me thinking and changing my opinion for days, even weeks afterward. In my belief, this is the power of a well-crafted work of fiction: readers are able to climb into a story and live the conflicts without consequence, and emerge from the other side with a better understanding of the people who inhabit the world around them.
Julie Lawson Timmer brings us two characters, both in the midst of their own crises: each has only five days to say goodbye. Giving the reader instant fuel for thought – what would you do with your own five day deadline: then developing characters that are wholly human with good and bad choices, ideas, approaches and easily accessible emotions, the story grabs you and stays present long after the final page.
Scott and Mara are two people living their own deadlines: Mara has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is struggling with her own mortality, her worry for her husband and adopted daughter, her fear about the ‘end stages’ of the disease, and thinking that leaving now, before the disease takes a toll would be the logical step. For his part, Scott is the foster father to a young boy, a man who works with troubled children and has a ‘savior complex’ if his wife is to be believed. Scott’s time with Curtis is soon to end, as his mother is due to be released from jail in five days.
The author outlines the general storyline, and the characters then fill and grow to fit their parts. Mara and her very thorough approach to her own decision: lawyer that she is, her overall attack of her problem feels like a legal argument pros and cons, facts weighed against emotions, and an overriding sense of her own remove (real or imagined) from her adopted daughter. Mara’s ability to convince herself of the ‘rightness’ of her plans , when her emotional side emerges there is a strong dose of melodrama, understandable, but withdrawal from her husband Todd and stepping away from her daughter in the belief that as ‘just’ an adoptive mum, Lakshmi will be fine because ‘her real mother is out there’. Mara does what she believes is best, and will fit her version of the lives she ‘hopes’ for her family as she struggles with her own choice for suicide. A bit all over the place emotionally, I can’t imagine living these decisions or situations and think that deep down we all would have many moments that feel scattered, maudlin and downright childish.
Scott and Curtis are another story. Scott’s pregnant wife is more appropriate in her reactions to Curtis being reunited with his mother, and while she knows it will hurt, she does believe that it will be good for him. Scott however, has seen too much in his work, and is more pessimistic: he doesn’t believe Curtis will be better off with his mother, doesn’t believe his mother is ready to parent ‘as well and with the opportunities’ he and Laurie can provide. His ‘need’ to save the world, or at least his little corner of it become more apparent as the story progresses, and it does manage to bring into question his own ability to do what he does without a complete breakdown.
Both couples suffer from an overdose of protective yet selfish behavior on the part of Scott and Mara: as circumstances change and decisions are made, consequences and reactions also change and I was wondering if step B was taken rather than A, what would be the effect. And that is the genius in this story, the multiple approaches and questions raised for readers, wondering just what could have changed and where to give people an ending that was not destined to be heartbreaking.
Not perfect by any means, there is a certain piling on of challenges to each character that feels heavy-handed and a touch manipulative. The emotion in this story comes from the goodbyes that are being faced, and the characters’ fears and reactions to the change in circumstance. But, when you step away and see the common thread of losing control of your life’s destiny in a giant neon letter way, and the struggle to regain some control against all the odds, the manipulation and overwhelming heaviness of the emotion become less important. What stands out is the choices, the questions: what would you do, how do you let go, can you survive the losses, and more importantly the realization that there is no absolute right or wrong, simply different choices.
Title: Five Days Left
Author: Julie Lawson Timmer
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published by: Penguin, Putnam Adult
Source: Penguin First To Read
Audio Length: 12 Hours: 54 minutes
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"A beautifully drawn study of what is at risk when you lose control of your own life. Unique, gripping, and viscerally moving -- this impressive debut novel heralds the arrival of an extremely talented writer." —Jodi Picoult,New York Times bestselling author of The Storyteller and Lone Wolf
Destined to be a book club favorite, a heart-wrenching debut about two people who must decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice for love.
Mara Nichols, a successful lawyer, and devoted wife and adoptive mother, has recently been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Scott Coffman, a middle school teacher, has been fostering an eight-year-old boy while the boy’s mother serves a jail sentence. Scott and Mara both have five days left until they must say good-bye to the ones they love the most.
Through their stories, Julie Lawson Timmer explores the individual limits of human endurance, the power of relationships, and that sometimes loving someone means holding on, and sometimes it means letting go.
A copy of this title was provided via Penguin First To Read for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.