The Rest of Her Life
By Laura Moriarty
Hyperion / 306 pages / $24.95
Your 18-year-old daughter is driving the family SUV, and she kills someone. What do you do? In Laura Moriarity's second novel, The Rest of Her Life, Leigh Churchill confronts that dilemma head on.
After her daughter, Kara, accidentally hits a pedestrian in the crosswalk, Leigh tries to help her daughter cope with the legal and emotional ramifications of the accident. But despite her best efforts, she can't get through to Kara, even though she has a good rapport with just about everyone else in the story: her husband, Gary, a college professor, her prepubescent son, Justin, her sister, Pam, her friend, Eva, and the middle-school students she teaches.
Moriarty's well-received first novel, The Center of Everything, also focused on a rocky mother-daughter relationship, but it was told from a daughter's perspective. Now in a sense, the daughter in that novel, Evelyn Bucknow, has grown up to become a mother, Leigh Churchill.
A well-intentioned mother, Leigh doesn't know what's wrong between her and Kara. Having had a poor relationship with her mother (as did Evelyn, her literary predecessor), Leigh wonders if she doesn't know how to communicate with her daughter because of the way she herself was raised.
Kara, who in many ways has been a responsible teen, has put a wall between herself and her mother. She'll talk to her father, her Aunt Pam, a kindly hard-luck case, and Willow, her best friend. But she rebuffs Leigh. Is Kara merely the average self-centered teen who blames mom for what ails her? Or is there more to her coldness?
The stakes grow higher when it's learned that the accident victim is another high school student, Bethany Cleese. A year or two younger than Kara, Bethany comes from a family headed by a single mother who in many ways is reminiscent of Leigh's own mother. Adding tension to the plot, Bethany, it turns out, is one of Leigh's former students. So Leigh feels responsible and tries to make amends to the girl's mother, who rejects her efforts and seeks revenge against Kara.
Depressed by the accident, Kara feels guilty and becomes increasingly withdrawn. She stays in her room, won't eat and seems suicidal. Leigh realizes that it's more imperative than ever for her to communicate with her daughter. But how can Leigh break the barriers between them when she doesn't even know what they are? The topic - a mother's attempts to reach out to her daughter - isn't trendy and has no sex appeal. Nor will the novel become an Academy-Award-winning film with the blockbuster audience of, say, Brokeback Mountain proportions. But this isn't a story to be relegated to the realm of ladies' magazine fiction.
Although this novel could have degenerated into a cliche of mother-daughter angst, it doesn't, primarily because of Moriarty's action-packed writing style and her convincing characters - especially Leigh. If Moriarity had made her a mental lightweight, the novel could have been another chick-lit heroine-deals-with-life story. But Leigh is a multidimensional character - a mother and a professional with intellectual interests. Having overcome childhood deprivation, she has gained a toughness and a perspective that keeps readers engaged.
She loves literature and attempts to teach literary classics to her honors class - despite the protests of some small-minded parents in the out-of-the-way Kansas town of Danby. As they complain that fiction by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor and others will give their children the wrong values, Leigh (in the midst of dealing with Kara's situation) is forced to rethink her motives for teaching these authors as well as the literary merit of their work.
The O'Connor story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," becomes the focus of Leigh's attention. As Leigh thinks about O'Connor's protagonist, an old woman who reaches out to her killer and dissolves the differences between them - "blurring the line between killer and victim, between wrongdoing and wronged" - Leigh makes connections to herself and her own daughter. Although the situation is somewhat of a stretch, it generally works because Moriarty has drawn Leigh with such fine strokes.
With the story told from Leigh's point of view, Leigh's concerns about Kara become our concerns. They seem logical, and they add suspense to this already tense story. As the action progresses, we learn along with Leigh that Kara is at fault. The accident happened when she was talking on her cell phone and was being distracted by a stray dog in the car's back seat.
But Leigh wants to protect Kara from the full penalty of her actions. She doesn't want her to go to jail, which is a real possibility, or to forgo college, which is also a possibility. She sees her daughter as too immature to make important decisions, especially when the consequences could be devastating.
How can a mother prevent her daughter from compounding a problem and possibly ruining her life? How indeed? That's the question Moriarty poses in this quietly engaging story.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published this year.