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Book Review

Tale of separations and connections

By Karen Campbell
January 28, 2011

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Isabelle is running away from home, from a childless, loveless marriage, a dead-end job, and a stifling existence on tourist-laden Cape Cod. She has felt stuck in her claustrophobic life since running away with the much older Luke when she was only 16. But Luke’s infidelity and an impending child with another woman have finally severed Isabelle’s psychic tether, and for the first time in 20 years, she has a sense of hope fueled by the delicious taste of freedom. At 36, she now has a little money stored up, a profession as a photographer, and “a dirt-cheap illegal sublet in New York that’s available for as long as she wants it.’’

But as she heads off Interstate 95 onto a Connecticut side road looking for gas, Isabelle’s car is enveloped in a thick shroud of fog. She can barely see a few feet ahead of her, and soon she realizes she is lost. The road narrows, the fog deepens, and suddenly there is a car in front of her, stopped, facing the wrong direction. A woman stands in front of it, a startled boy caught in the headlights’ glare darts off into the darkness, and “the two cars slam together like a kiss.’’ In the collision, April Nash, a woman from the same small town as Isabelle, is killed instantly, leaving Isabelle to deal not only with the fractured pieces of her own life but the confusion and grief of the husband and young son April leaves behind.

From the opening chapter, Caroline Leavitt’s compelling new “Pictures of You’’ unfolds as part literary mystery, part domestic drama, and part psychological examination. As Isabelle grapples with guilt over the accident, she questions her culpability and the life decisions that brought her to that fateful moment. As it turns out, April was also running away, and no one knows what she was doing on that dark stretch of road, three hours from home, not even her 9-year-old asthmatic son Sam, who stowed away in the back seat as a surprise companion for whatever adventure his mother had in mind. It is this ambiguity — what was April running away from, or toward? — that drives the suspense.

However, just as provocative and riveting is the subtle connections that slowly start to form between Isabelle, young Sam, and Sam’s father, Charlie, who both grieves for his dead wife and questions the very foundations of his marriage to a woman he apparently didn’t fully know. It is the physically fragile Sam who brings the three together. He spots Isabelle on the street and is convinced she is the angel, present at the horrific accident, who can help him reconnect with his dead mother. Gradually Charlie enters into this curious relationship, and the story becomes rich with themes of redemption, forgiveness, and the ineffable ties that bind us to one another.

“Pictures of You’’ is the ninth novel by Leavitt, who is also an essayist and a book critic for the Boston Globe. Her writing is unfussy and direct, with vivid descriptions and passages of striking insight and wrenching, visceral power, especially in the accident’s immediate aftermath, as when Charlie goes home to an empty house and “. . . his head reeled. Everything looked different to him now, as if the colors were all a shade off. The air had a strange metallic taste and he was suddenly shivering.’’

Leavitt beautifully paces the book’s intertwining stories, meticulously unfurling bits of the back story, letting us put together the pieces just as the main characters do. But she wisely avoids the neat, pat wrap-up. “Pictures of You’’ is about processing both discovery and loss, discerning when to hold on and when to let go and understanding what in the middle of it all makes life meaningful.

Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com or at www.dancingink.weebly.com.

PICTURES OF YOU By Caroline Leavitt

Algonquin, 335 pp.,

paperback, $13.95