You receive the call.
“We need to talk,” says the voice that vowed to love you until death do you part. “I’ve been seeing someone for awhile.”
Suddenly you find yourself the unwitting co-star in a midlife cliché. Far worse, you watch helplessly as your kids fall into emotional catatonia, prone and unmoving on the rug after they learn that their father is leaving. Weeks later, when your pre-teen son grunts at his dad on the phone, no longer even deigning to form words, you understand that the most tragic legacy of the ensuing divorce isn’t a broken family. It’s your children’s broken hearts.
Return to Me is my love letter to my children. As a writer-mom, I knew I had to assure my children—and every one of my readers who’s ever been betrayed, whether by best friend, boyfriend, or parent—that yes, you will haul yourself up on your feet after your plans have been kicked out from under you. Yes, you will find and feel joy again. Yes, as impossible as it seems, you can forgive. And yes, yes, yes, you can absolutely become better, not bitter after an ordeal. What better way to provide this hope than through my mother tongue: story?
So as crazy as it sounds and as personally painful as it was, just six months after our family imploded, I began to write. And in the arduous smelting process called writing, my specifics were melted away. What remains is a Valentine about love: true, enduring and abiding love. Love that heals the estranged relationship between a mother and grandmother. Love that envelopes a grandfather’s wounded family. Love that becomes the seedling of forgiveness for a father.
Return to Me follows Rebecca, an aspiring architect, in the immediate aftermath of her father leaving the family. The sudden implosion of family has multiple cataclysmic repercussions, forcing Reb to grow up fast and reassess the people she thought her parents to be. What she discovers is the beautiful, unexpected silver lining to any life change: her own strength, her own truth, and her own ability to hit reset.
I have an extremely soft spot for intergenerational stories, always gravitating to them: Wild Swans, Three Junes, The Secret Life of Bees. This novel provided me with the perfect excuse to write one of my own, interweaving the story and backstory of Reb, her mother, and her grandmother to explore all stages of relationships: new, broken, and second-chance. What those three generations of women in Return to Me learn is that love is worth the risk, even when their pummeled hearts want to run to the safety of solitude.
I had no choice but to share what I’ve learned on my own journey. That, I think, is the obligation of any author: to tell the unflinching emotional truth and to share any insight that we might have. There is a concept called sistering that I write about in Return to Me. When wood begins to rot, builders often flank it with a piece of healthy wood to keep a structure sound. That’s precisely what Return to Me is supposed to do: sister my children and my readers.
After I finished writing Return to Me, I realized that I had much more to say to adult women. In three fast-and-furious writing days, a slim self-help companion book spilled out of me. WHAT NOW: A Survival Guide for the Blindsided and Brokenhearted is a concise sister-to-sister manual detailing what to do in the first thirty days after a relationship falls apart. These are the marching orders for women to take care of themselves and their kids—emotionally, physically, legally, and financially. These are the operating instructions to keep a woman standing long enough so she can take the next step, then the next.
Almost a year after the kids’ father left, I read about the Pleiades meteor showers, which would be clearly seen that evening. So at midnight, two girlfriends and I headed out to a remote clearing an hour from Seattle. We ended up on a golf course, hardly the atmospheric meadow we had imagined. But while we lay on the hood of the car, eyes pointed heavenward, chortling over our high school misadventures, I realized something miraculous: we could be anywhere and I would be happy.
Somewhere along my journey, the dust of my married life had been transformed into the stardust of a new life. And I was no longer spinning in a crazy daze anymore. I was dancing. And that is what I hope my words do for the readers who need them: transform the dust of their pain into stardust, glorious and unimaginably beautiful. And be the assurance that they will dance once more.
Justina Chen is also the author of several other young adult novels, including North of Beautiful, which received three starred reviews, and Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies), which won the 2007 Asian Pacific American Award for Youth Literature. She is a co-founder of readergirlz, the online book community for teens, and lives in the Seattle area with her two children.