Maddy Starling doesn’t let mere physical death stop her mothering her family. She keeps monitoring her husband and daughter, trying to comfort young Eve through her grief, and helping Brady audition for his second wife. But Maddy’s family can’t move on. They haven’t yet reconciled why anyone, much less their high-spirited and involved wife and mother, would commit suicide just hours after buying ingredients for next Sunday’s dinner.
Abby Fabiaschi’s debut novel is probably directed at a primarily female audience. I say this not disparagingly, but in recognition that women have always been America’s chief producers and consumers of fiction. I also recognize that Fabiaschi’s story doesn’t follow the guy-friendly pattern of rising action, climactic conflict, and resolution. Instead it’s made of moments, a cascading pattern of highs and lows, much like a relationship. Or like life.
Though disembodied, Maddy remains a presence in her family’s life. Not just in their memory, either; her new semi-omniscience couples with an ability to subconsciously nudge loved ones, letting her continue providing the guidance they’ve grown accustomed to. Brady and Eve are both driven Type-A personalities, who needed Maddy’s influence to soften their interactions. Now father and daughter must learn to get along without Mommy to grease the gears.
Brady climbed the corporate ladder to become CFO to a ranking Massachusetts corporation (I missed what they do). He excused his marathon hours behind necessity: if I stop working, my family will lose its creature comforts. But with Maddy gone, Brady realizes he doesn’t really know the family he’s supported. Worse, he doesn’t know himself, because he’s buried his personality behind responsibilities. And he can’t heal if he can’t learn.
Lesser novelists might have written this novel on maudlin themes of loss and heartbreak, of learning to build a “new normal” without the foundations we previously took for granted. Fabiaschi front-loads those themes into early chapters, then dispenses with them quickly. For her, the gap between reality and expectation, between the reality of purpose and the illusion of control, matters more. These characters learn having purpose means sacrificing treasured illusions.
Admittedly, early chapters could try readers’ patience. Eve and Brady begin the novel newly bereaved, casting about impotently for blame and explanations, that is, for illusions of control. It’s necessary to face these early chapters to have the payoff that comes later, but audiences weaned on rising action may find such introspection maudlin. Don’t be fooled. These characters invite us on their journey, and it starts in their bleakest moments.
Rising action is, arguably, readers’ illusion of control. The well-framed, writerly structure comforts us in believing the work was constructed, as Roland Barthes put it, “theologically,” with a purpose inherent to the author. When reality has us casting about helplessly, reducing us all to agnostics, at least everything we read has conscious control. At times throughout this book, we wonder if that’s true. Fabiaschi, to her credit, lets us wonder.
Interspersed among this story, told by rotating first-person narrators, the theme of Maddy’s death remains persistent. Not only does her suicide seem unmotivated, her means—jumping off Wellesley College’s library roof—seems more symbolic than practical. Though Maddy tells one-third of the novel herself, she remains remarkably cagey about the exact circumstances. Experienced readers know that, the longer a secret is withheld, the bigger it better be.
In a rare surprise for literary fiction, the twist reveal proves sufficient to reward readers’ interest. No, I won’t reveal what the characters have to earn. But suffice to say, it brings what they’ve discovered about Maddy’s life to a culmination. It emphasizes the characters’ faith in justice and purpose has merit. Though committedly unreligious, the Starlings trust the universe has an arc of justice, which will reward their unknowing.
The epilogue makes me suspect this novel has autobiographical elements. But not many. Fabiaschi creates a literary, magic-realist fantasy of incisively realistic proportions. She invites us to confront grief and loss, but also life’s annoying tendency to persist. And she reminds us that the times which most incline us toward despair are the moments that most infuse life with meaning.