cover image With or Without You

With or Without You

Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61620-779-3

Leavitt’s illuminating exploration of a 40-something couple’s failed relationship (after Cruel Beautiful World) revolves around three people. Stella is a nurse with dwindling hopes for starting a family after dating washed-up rocker Simon for 20 years. Their lives are upturned when Stella accidentally takes a mix of medication and alcohol that puts her in a coma. While Stella is comatose, Simon and Stella’s friend and colleague, Libby, a brusque and intimidating doctor, initially butt heads but find common ground, and by the time Stella revives after a few months, they’ve secretly developed a romantic relationship. Stella comes out of the coma feeling tentative about taking up where her life left off professionally and personally, even without knowing how the two closest people in her life betrayed her. She finds solace in a newfound talent for drawing, gaining a measure of fame and financial independence from her portraits. While a tacked-on, fairy tale ending fails to convince, Leavitt shows how the characters’ family relationships and childhood experiences inform their actions and needs (Simon’s disapproving father; the death of Libby’s brother in their childhood), and demonstrates how they are all transformed after Stella wakes up from her coma. This is a highly readable exploration of the fluid nature of relationships and redemptive power of self-reflection. (Aug.)