Coming Back to Me
by Caroline Leavitt
(St. Martinís Press, $24.95, G) ISBN 0-312-26937-4
****
Coming Back to Me is the type of book that makes you glad you know how to read. Itís a beautifully written, moving story of authentic people dealing with a difficult, life-changing situation. This is my first Caroline Leavitt novel, but it wonít be my last.

Gary was orphaned at an early age and raised by an elderly aunt. He had never been very good at committing himself to romantic relationships until he met Molly at his favorite New Jersey diner, and their immediate connection led to a quick but extremely successful marriage. Mollyís single mother worked long hours, and Molly was virtually raised by her older sister, Suzanne, so Molly had experienced her fair share of loneliness too. So the newlyweds are overjoyed when Molly becomes pregnant, and they happily plan to become a real family. But three days after delivering a healthy baby boy, Molly becomes critically ill with a mysterious ailment. Suddenly all of their hopes and dreams become meaningless, as Molly fights for her life and Gary, without warning, becomes little Otisí only caretaker.

When Gary becomes desperate for help, he calls on the only resource he can think of - Mollyís sister, Suzanne. Years ago, Suzanne rebelled against the responsibility forced upon her and ran away to California with her high school boyfriend. Although the sisters are estranged, Gary has run out of options. Ultimately, however, bringing the beautiful but volatile Suzanne back to New Jersey causes as many problems as it solves, and Gary soon has good reason to question his decision.

This novel works so well because it engages the readerís emotions without lapsing into melodrama. Caroline Leavitt introduces her characters, spends some time exploring their past, and then lets them speak for themselves. This type of shattering crisis could strike anyone (although weíd like to think it only happens to other people), and itís both horrifying and reassuring to see how they deal with it. Gary has to cope with professional and financial crises, when he is pressured by his boss to get back to work and the hospital sends home ludicrously huge bills. After months living in the hospital with a chronic illness, Molly feels like an alien in the outside world, and a stranger to her own baby, but she is determined to prevail. Suzanne has thrown most of her life away on the wrong man, but she begins to find some self-worth in her growing bond with baby Otis. These finely drawn characters are neither sinners nor saints, but very real and sympathetic - even Suzanne, the most troubled character. You feel their loneliness, but you also have faith that they will find comfort and love in each other. While the novelís plot is somber, there are small flashes of humor that keep it from being a total downer. The ending of Coming Back to Me is positive without being unrealistically cheerful. But Iíll bet that Gary and Molly and Suzanne are going to make it. After spending 300 pages with them, they feel like people I know, and Iíll be rooting for them - while Iím searching the library for Caroline Leavittís previous releases, of course. Readers who like Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler or Jo-Ann Mapsonís work should join me.

--Susan Scribner


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