LOSING CHARLOTTE by Heather Clay
“Just not getting to say goodbye,” Bruce said, “Not getting to say anything.”
“How can that be?”
He started to cry, more motion than sound, his body shaking slightly.
Review by Kirstin Merrihew (MAR 25, 2010)
Fifteen years ago, ER’s Dr. Greene tried in vain to save a pregnant woman whose preeclampsia he had originally misdiagnosed. She bled out to her eventual death. It was one of the most grueling, shocking hours of television ever. It was also one of the best; some consider it the top episode in the series.В Losing Charlotte does not concentrate on describing the blow-by-blow stark visuals of a the fatal hemorrhaging. That takes place in an operating room where her family (and we) don’t witness the final ebb of life. But this sensitive novel does revolve around the loss of a hopeful mother-to-be, similar to the ER story.
A mother-to-be whose twins are delivered a bit prematurely and who then seems on the road to recovery but develops rare complications. She, Charlotte, is quietly exchanging banter about the newborns with her parents, sister, and husband just shortly after the cesarian births. Her heart begins to beat much faster (” ‘It’s like I’m on too much speed…’ “) and hospital personnel shoo out the new grandparents and aunt. They sit in the waiting room, slowly eating themselves from apprehension and no information. Next thing Charlotte’s sister Knox knows, her stunned brother-in-law, Bruce, is being led out of the operating room and away for private counseling, and other doctors come to deliver the sad news to the rest of the clan. No chance to say real good-byes. Just a sudden cessation of a blooming life…and two children in incubators who will have to grow up without their mother.
Knox Bolling, the younger sister, has always been the one who stayed close to home. In fact, she sleeps in her own cabin on the Kentucky horse farm her parents turned into a very lucrative enterprise, but she often sits down to dinner with everyone else at the main house. She loves her parents and her connection to them more than she wants a separate life. Her boyfriend works on the stud farm, and although he has proposed marriage repeatedly, Knox seems wary of establishing a family of her own. Why change when everything, as is, feels tried and good to to her?
She’s also always found Charlotte perplexing because Charlotte never seemed comfortable in the bosom of her family. Charlotte’s impulse, acted upon, was to escape. As a teenager, she rebelled by slipping out nights to meet guys. Knox, ever worried about the family equilibrium — always feeling a compulsion to make things “right” — sometimes tiptoed out too in the early mornings to round up big sis; trying to get her back to bed before their folks woke up. Sometimes Charlotte appreciated this intervention in the name of family peace and loved Knox all the more; other times she spurned it.
Later, Charlotte made a life in New York City, where she, perhaps uncharacteristically, rather mundanely met Bruce Tavert, and they ultimately wed. Possibly another sign of Charlotte’s inclination to “have to” do things the hard way, pregnancy didn’t come as naturally as the Taverts would have preferred. But when Charlotte got the news about the twins inside her womb, she hoped to share this with her sister. She called and wrote quite a few emails during the months of gestation. Knox, however, busy with her teaching job and her more present family, often procrastinated in answering. Even when it came time for the babies to be born, Knox wavered about whether to accompany her parents, thinking she would have plenty of time to see Charlotte and the little ones later. Going, perhaps more to please her parents than herself or Charlotte, Knox at least would not suffer the pangs of guilt she might have had she stayed home. And when, in the delivery room, Charlotte specifically asked the doctor if Knox could stay: ” ‘Can I keep my sister with me?’ ” it wasn’t Knox who decreed that she must leave also when Charlotte’s heart went hyper.
Bruce, so rudely and unexpectedly bereaved, is overwhelmed with his responsibilities as a new father when the boys come home from the hospital. At this point, Knox, who does regret her earlier side-stepping of her sister’s overtures to share in the milestones of the pregnancy, journeys to the Big Apple to help Bruce establish a schedule for the twins. She and Bruce are virtual strangers, so the question is whether they can function as a compatible team, or whether she will actually end up being more in Bruce’s way. How will caring for the helpless infants change both Knox and Bruce? How will Charlotte’s empty space affect them?
Losing Charlotte does revolve around a death, but this novel is perhaps more accurately a sensitive, observant character study than a sudsy melodrama. With patience and thoroughness, first-time author Heather Clay delves into the background of her cast. Although the chapters are, except for the Prologue, all entitled “Knox” or “Bruce,” and these two receive a greater part of the attention, Clay also gives dimension to Ned, the boyfriend; Marlene, Knox’s confidante; the youngest Bolling, Knox and Charlotte’s brother, Robbie; and others. The symbiotic marital relations of Bruce and Charlotte feel almost claustrophobic at times — particularly when Bruce acts dangerously and then confesses. The Knox/Ned relationship is less intimately dependent, but that’s due to Knox’s reluctance to commit. As for the Bolling parents, they don’t have as much flesh on their character bones, but that’s because they are viewed mainly through Knox’s eyes. In the course of the narrative, I sometimes wished to know them better, but for children of any set of parents, there will always be an air of mystery about the two who brought them into this world, and Losing Charlotte sensibly incorporates that distance, that unknowingness. Inevitably everyone carries baggage from their childhood, and Clay convincingly sketches the fears and insecurities that formed the younger adults.
This novel, with its theme of the attempted bridging of the gap between two sisters at a time when it is, in a sense, too late, reminds me of I See You Everywhere, by Julia Glass. Both books have a survivor sister contending with the legacy of her very different deceased sibling. Both reach into various episodes of the sisters’ lives to reveal them to the reader. Both incorporate the cycles of nature as metaphors for human nature. Both concentrate on character rather than plot. While I See You Everywhere is arguably the more complex novel, Losing Charlotte allows the reader to feel more comfortable and aligned in its pages. Clay includes many a flashback, but her structure is nevertheless more easily followed than Glass‘. Furthermore, I at least, found Charlotte and Knox to be more sympathetic women than Clem and Louisa (as an aside, it’s interesting that each story pairs one sister with a feminine name with another carrying a more masculine). Knox and Charlotte certainly exude disconcerting traits — don’t we all? — but they aren’t as self-destructive as is least one of Glass’ difficult creatures.
Losing Charlotte wraps the reader in the lives of people who — ready or not — must face the loss of a relatively young loved one. It explores the sisterly bond, where that can break down, and how it might be healed, at least partially. It also studies marriage and how that bond, frail at times, can be unbreakable but incomprehensible to outsiders. Its graceful and uncompromising insights enlighten us not only about the struggles of the characters, but remind us of our own as well. Sometimes when things are proceeding in a routine fashion, we forget that implacable change can swoop down in a moment and engulf us. As Clay puts it with Whitmanesque intonations: “Knox was mortal, as was everything and everyone she’d ever loved. This was the music that had always been playing, its notes the only constant in all the world; she could finally make it out, humming in the dead grass and within every breath and step she took.”
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 1 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Knopf; 1 edition (March 23, 2010)|
|AMAZON PAGE:||Losing Charlotte|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Heather Clay|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More sisters:
I See You Everywhere by Julie Glass
The Storm by Margriet de Moor
The Sister by Poppy Adams
Catching Genius by Kristy Kiernan
- Losing Charlotte (March 2010)