Late-stage breast cancer is no bar to romantic intrigue in this plangent novel of hope and regret.
Only 34 years old, Jennifer Wells, mother of two toddlers and owner of a thriving fashion boutique, feels way too young to be stuck in the Shady Valley cancer treatment center’s inpatient wing. Unfortunately, what she sees in the mirror is a body ravaged by surgery and experimental chemo, which leaves her so debilitated she needs a walker to hobble around. Worse, her increasingly distracted husband, Henry, no longer views her as a desirable woman, she fears, but as a sickly, sexless burden. Then, into her listless half-life walks old flame Alex Thomas, still handsome, rich, mysterious and apparently as besotted with Jennifer as he was when she threw him over for Henry (even as he pays court to Jennifer’s irritating sibling rival, Julie). Alex’s reappearance precipitates a perfect emotional storm: Henry’s jealousy is kindled; Alex’s obsession grows darker; Jennifer, invigorated by Alex’s attention, grapples with their past relationship, mulls over roads not taken and wonders whether she should start down a new one that could wreck her marriage. In Jennifer’s turmoil, the novel presents a complex, three-dimensional portrait of a cancer patient poised halfway between despair and forlorn hope. Compelled to exist on the most contingent basis, she focuses on death and survival while yearning to reconnect to love and family. Rouda writes with a fluent, psychologically subtle realism that cuts Jennifer’s pathos (and occasional self-pity) with humor and irony, and she surrounds her with characters—doting dad; vain, shallow mom; mensch of a gay business partner; sarcastic gal pals—who are sharply etched and entertaining. Jennifer is a winning heroine, and readers will undoubtedly root for her as she reaches for a more mature, if achingly uncertain, future.
An absorbing story of a woman grasping at life in the midst of death.