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WITH OR WITHOUT YOU by Caroline Leavitt Kirkus Star


by Caroline Leavitt

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-61620-779-3
Publisher: Algonquin

What if Snow White woke up and decided she didn’t much like Prince Charming?

Something like that happens in Leavitt's latest novel. New Yorkers Simon and Stella have been a couple since the heady days when his rock band was almost famous. Now in their 40s, he’s still chasing musical fame while Stella, a skilled and well-regarded nurse, supports them both and generally is the adult in the relationship. The night before they’re supposed to leave for a gig in California that might be his big break, they have a nasty argument, drink a lot of wine, and, despite Stella’s aversion to drug abuse, share an unidentified pill. In the morning, Simon wakes up and Stella doesn’t. Her coma lasts for several months. The middle section of the book alternates among Simon’s anguished guilt and devotion to caring for her, Stella’s hallucinatory experiences while comatose, and the reactions of Stella’s best friend, Libby, who is one of the doctors treating her. Libby had never liked Simon but is impressed with his dedication; unlucky in love herself, she’s drawn to him. Sparks fly, but their loyalty to Stella counters the attraction. Then the patient awakes, and, as can happen after comas, her personality is quite different. The old Stella was cautious and always played by the rules; the new one is restless, reckless, and emotionally distant. The only thing that calms her is art. Compulsive doodling turns into startlingly accomplished drawings—a talent she had never displayed before. People begin to commission her probing portraits; in the meantime, Simon, kicked out of his band because he stayed at Stella’s bedside, is a Lyft driver. And Libby keeps swearing she won’t see Simon anymore and then opening the door when he buzzes. Leavitt expands the characters with backstories that have a common thread: Stella, Simon, and Libby all felt severely rejected by their parents in childhood. The upheavals in their lives caused by Stella’s coma and its aftermath lead to the exposures of old secrets, healed wounds, and surprising futures.

One character’s coma is only the first surprise in this satisfying story of middle-aged love.