Colleen Hoover’s November 9

“Her tears and my soul, they live parallel lives.”

It has been said that in order to grow as a person, you need to have experienced pain. Debilitating pain. Heart-wrenching pain. Pain from which the weak succumb to, and only the strong survive. Pain that changes your life. In Colleen Hoover’s latest novel, November 9, she explores the idea of life-altering pain and the affects that it can have on a person.

The day that Ben sat down at Fallon’s table, subsequently walking into her life, she had no idea of the connection that they shared, or of the impact that he was about to have on her. Fallon was still in the thick of grieving for her old life, the one that had been destroyed two years ago to the day, when she was severely burned in a house fire. Fallon is a complicated person, but then again, so is Ben. They both live in the past but in very different ways. Fallon holds a lot of blame towards the person that she feels is responsible for the fire. She also has a lot of self-pity. She has made the fire into her identity instead of it being a tragedy that she was able to overcome. Because it was a tragedy. Fallon didn’t physically die that night, but the person that she had been did, and she has been struggling to get herself back ever since. When she meets Ben, she is able to open up to him and trust him because he is the first one to look beyond her scars and actually see the person beneath. I felt her devastation when she learns that Ben was the person who started the fire, but also her compassion when she learns of what he went through with his mother’s suicide.

Ben has never been able to forgive himself for starting that fire; it’s something that he has held with him and constantly beats himself up about. He lives in his guilt and heartbreak over the injuries that he caused Fallon. Which makes complete sense that when he starts to write, all that he can come up with is the story of that night. With Fallon in his life, Ben is able to finally see beyond the fire. He is able to help her regain the confidence that she lost and start his own healing process.

Both Fallon and Ben are flawed, and neither of them knows how to deal with their emotions, which is why they constantly hurt each other. At the end of the novel, I found myself wondering if I could have been able to forgive Ben, if I would have been strong enough to let the anger go. At the same time, would I have run out on Ben and not given him the chance to explain himself? I don’t know how I would react, and I think that is one of the larger points of the story: how much of your reactions are based on instinct and survival versus how much you can actually control, and how to distinguish between the two. Ben didn’t think about his actions when he set fire to the car. It was only after the fact, when the fire quickly became out of control that he realized the impact of what he had just done. I feel like Ben was always going to forgive Fallon in the end, because deep down, even though he had finally started to heal, I don’t think he will ever completely forgive himself. Some things you can never truly let go of.

In the end, Hoover shows that you can still move on with your life even if you can’t forget the pain or the cause of it. Some pain stays with you…but that doesn’t mean that you have to stop living.

Colleen Hoover's November 9
Colleen Hoover’s November 9. Atria Books.

Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife

If I could describe reading Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife briefly, I would say that it was like going on a journey of the soul. One year in the life of a widow, trying to make sense of a world that took her husband away from her, learning how to navigate life in an unfamiliar way, and discovering new facets about herself. It is about love and loss, and finding oneself again after your whole world has crumbled.

The protagonist, Anikka Lachlan – Ani – goes through quite the transformation. In the beginning of the novel, Ani is content with her life as a wife, a mother, a homemaker. She is a voracious reader, frequently getting lost in the pages of a book, but her life is calm, relaxed. There is a ‘stillness’ about her. She’s careful in her actions, always holding back as though she’s afraid that someone will notice her, afraid to let go and live in the moment. Unlike her husband, Mac, who we get to know – both through Ani’s memories and individual chapters – as a man who isn’t afraid to let life grab a hold of him and lead him. She is docile with him, complacent. After his death, Ani has no choice but to reinvent herself, and by the end of the novel, she is able to act carefree, doing cartwheels on the beach and actually wishing for an audience.

Ani is not the only character that we see go through a transformation. Roy McKinnon and Frank Draper return home three years after the end of WWII changed men. Before the war Roy had been a teacher. He is also a poet, having published a poem while he was away. Roy walks around aimlessly searching for something to write about, discouraged by his inability to write in a peaceful setting, until he befriends Ani, finally finding the inspiration that he needs to write again. As a doctor, Frank saw a lot more death than he could have imagined while he was away and felt helpless to stop it. It is only after he resumes his relationship with Roy’s sister and gets to know Ani that he is able to start enjoying life again.

It only took me three days to read this and I distinctly remember two times when it brought me to tears. The first was after we learn of Mac’s death, and the second when something completely unexpected occurs. The novel is full of beautiful prose and descriptions, and teaches you that life does not end with death, that sometimes it can be reborn.

 

“The oceans and the skies…and the sun coming up each new day. That’s all there is, I think. That’s all that matters to think on.”

The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay, coming April 2016
The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay. Coming April 2016. Atria Books.

Emily Giffin’s The One & Only

For her first novel with Random House, Emily Giffin’s The One & Only is, in some ways, quite a bit different from her other novels, revolving mainly around college football and the lives of those involved (directly or indirectly) in it. But, if you look beyond all of the sports discourse, you can see that, at its core, it is still a Giffin novel, just with love and relationships as a secondary focus instead of the main one.

The novel follows Shea Rigsby, a woman whose life completely revolves around football – something she has been passionate about since before she can remember. Her best friend, Lucy, is the daughter of famed college football coach Clive Carr, who not only is the head coach for Walker University – in the town of the same name that Shea grew up in – but also has been a role model and father figure to her due to her father’s absence. The Carrs are Shea’s second family, so when tragedy strikes them, naturally she empathizes and tries to do everything she can do to help them through it. But, with tragedy comes reflection; it’s what makes people reexamine their lives and make changes that they wouldn’t have done otherwise, and Shea is no different in that aspect. Maybe Walker isn’t everything. Shea makes big changes in both her personal and professional lives that, although seem to be the right paths for her, ultimately leave her wondering: what if everything she could ever want or need was there all along. What if Walker really was everything?

There is a major focus on football, but does it work for Giffin? Can her fans get passed the overwhelming assault of an emasculating sport or will they be thoroughly disappointed? Although I was slightly taken aback as to the sheer volume at which football comes into play in The One & Only, I think her writing stands for itself. What I love about Giffin novels is their ability to make me not only feel for and relate to the characters in the story, but also, their ability to make me turn inward and self-reflect. So many of us have aspects of our lives that we are not happy with, whether it be a job that doesn’t interest us, a love life that doesn’t challenge us, or just a melancholic feeling towards ourselves in general. Sometimes, changes have to be made in order for us to be happy, but often times, it’s just more a matter of changing our perception on things, as Shea experiences. Sometimes you need to take a step outside of yourself and your life to realize that everything you ever could have wanted has been there the whole time.

Sometimes you only get one shot. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury to think or wait or plan. Sometimes you have to reach out and seize your moment. Your best, last, or only chance.”

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Morgan Matson’s Second Chance Summer (YA)

Every so often something comes along that really tugs at my heart, and Morgan Matson’s Second Chance Summer is one of those novels. Categorized as young adult fiction – perhaps because the protagonist is a teenager – the novel follows Taylor alternating narratives between the present day and events that happened five years in the past.

What would you do if a loved one was dying and you could do nothing to stop it? Would you run away from it, or would you have the strength to face it head-on? In Second Chance Summer, we see a family that appears normal on the surface, but underneath is struggling just to make it through each day.

On Taylor’s birthday, her parents sit her and her siblings down, and inform them that their father has just been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, with only four months left to live. The family decides to go back to their summer lake house in the Poconos – which they’ve rented out for the past five summers – to have one last summer together and bond as a family while they still can; something that none of them are used to doing, as they are all closed off and rarely speak about their emotions with one another. Taylor, in particular, has a habit of running away from things that frighten her, love, friendship, anything emotional. Five years ago, she ran away from the lake house and the two people that she was closest to in the world. Will Taylor be able to face her past and her father’s rapidly deteriorating health, or will she do the one thing that is most natural to her? Will she run away?

Second Chance Summer is about many things, but I think the most prominent theme is time and how it runs out. Without warning. You can’t run away from time any more than you can run away from pain or heartache or the possibility of falling in love. Time doesn’t wait until you’re ready, it keeps moving, ticking away the hours. In one way or another, we are all guilty of running away from something or someone, but, like Taylor realizes in the novel, there are some things that, no matter what you do, you just cannot run away from. You have to stand still. And, by choosing to face it, you will become stronger.

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Pieces of Ourselves

I was talking with Melissa this morning and she told me about a dream that she had last night, a vision, of a specific moment with an old love, one who she has never been able to fully forget. Her description was so vivid that I could imagine myself being there, so vivid that, in the moment, she felt as though she was there again. When she opened her eyes, she felt an intense ache in her heart, a longing that she hadn’t felt in a while. I told her that I knew exactly what she was talking about and how she felt because the same thing happened to me a few days earlier. She asked me, “How does it feel so real?? How come we can’t remember happy moments like that…”

I thought about her question for a moment, then answered with this: It feels so real because it was, because we still love/miss that person so much. Because the memories that bring us to tears have a more profound effect on us than ones that make us smile.

As much as we live for those moments of happiness, they don’t affect us nearly as much as the devastating ones when remembered. Happiness is what we strive for; it’s the ideal, yet, it is pain, we are told, that gives us strength and makes us grow. But really, why is this? Could it just be that we can remember loss more than love because that is what we’ve grown up hearing? Couldn’t we grow just as much through love as through loss? Honestly, I think it is more a matter of changing your perspective, because of course we can and we do. But those memories that Melissa had, that I’ve had, that we all have had, they will always haunt us not only because of the people that we were with then, but even more so because of the person that we were at that moment…a piece of ourselves that we can never get back.

Amy Hatvany’s Safe With Me

In Amy Hatvany’s new novel, Safe With Me, published in March by Washington Square Press, she weaves a tale of abuse, loss and unconditional love through three distinct alternating narrations of two women and one teenager, who are connected long before they meet.

It had been nearly a year since Hannah Scott lost her daughter as she was biking out of their driveway and hit by a car. Since then, she threw herself into her work, opening up a second hair salon and moving into an apartment above it, trying to pick up the pieces when all the while she’s still devastated by it. It’s not until a new friend walks into her life (and her salon) with a connection to her daughter that she is finally able to face the situation and start healing.

Olivia Bell has lived her life in fear for a long time, fearful of her husband’s sometimes abusive tendencies, and fearful of her daughter Maddie’s struggling health, which, after an organ transplant a year earlier is finally improving enough that she can return to school. It is when Olivia picks Maddie up on her first day back in tears that she decides to make her daughter feel better…by taking her to the grand opening of a new hair salon in town. Little do they know that their trip to Hannah’s salon will change their lives forever.

At the heart of this novel lies the concept of the power of emotions and how strongly they can affect us, sometimes without us even knowing it. Hatvany makes us take a look at our own lives and relationships, past the ideals, past the rose-colored glasses, and allows us to see them for what they really are (were).

“We try on personalities like second skins, learning to present only the best versions of ourselves to the world, fearful of what might happen if we reveal just how imperfect and vulnerable we really are. But it’s these imperfections…these struggles, that truly connect us.”