A novel about a ghostwriter offers an exercise in family, grief, and adjustment.
When her mother dies prematurely after a battle with cancer, Julia Clark is devastated. Years later, she still struggles to recover from the loss of a bond that always seemed unbreakable. Now a successful ghostwriter, Julia throws herself into her assignments as well as a novel that she hopes will lead to professional success under her own name. Until then, she passes the days with expert after expert—a leading psychoanalyst, a celebrity chef, a prima ballerina, and others—distilling their lives into future bestsellers while the world seems to have moved on without her. Her two sisters have families of their own; her father has started dating again. While her husband, Leo, is sweet and eternally supportive, her mother-in-law, Lilly, is anything but. A well-groomed woman with “detective-like eyes,” Lilly never misses a chance to interrogate Julia on when she plans on having children and why she won’t refer to her dear old mother-in-law as “Mom,” a well-meant sentiment that only succeeds in making Julia’s pain more acute. When a new expert guesses that Julia’s mother has died, she realizes that she won’t truly be able to move on until she makes peace with her loss. The author’s prose is polished and evocative: “A ghostwriter must drown her own self and let her imagination live a completely different life.” As a result, Julia’s voice is clear and inviting, a wry observer suffering a near-universal loss. Indeed, the narrative is strongest when lingering on the ways in which Julia mourns: a beautifully rendered memory of “Mom’s wrists…buried in the bowl as she mixed and mashed the tomatoes by hand” evoked by a day spent shadowing a celebrity chef or the moment when Julia takes inspiration from her mother to play a trick on Leo. In contrast, Julia’s experiences as a ghostwriter sometimes feel out of sync tonally, and the two threads struggle at times to complement each other. Still, Swan (Dear Isabelle, 2007, etc.) renders the desolation of mourning exceedingly well.
The heart of this narrative about coping with loss rings powerfully true.