'Leave Me': An overwhelmed wife and mom flees to the 'Burgh
October 9, 2016 12:00 AM
Stomping Ground photo
Gayle Forman book "Leave Me."
By Melissa M. Firman
Gayle Forman wastes little time introducing the medical crisis at the heart of “Leave Me.” Within the novel’s first sentence, it’s clear that Maribeth Klein, an overscheduled 44-year-old wife and mother of preschool-aged twins, is having a heart attack.
Unaware that her symptoms of chest heaviness and nausea are more serious than stress or indigestion, Maribeth does what most busy women do: For several days, she ignores the tell-tale signs that something is amiss.
By Gayle Forman Algonquin Books ($26.95).
After all, she has a demanding job as a magazine editor and deadlines don’t take sick days. Neither does her dizzying schedule of obligations on behalf of her husband, Jason, and their children. Even while being prepped for emergency bypass surgery, Maribeth remains in denial that her life is in jeopardy.
She survives, but her anxiety doesn’t abate. As she recovers, Jason’s attempts to keep their household running aren’t up to her standards, her best-friend-turned-boss cares more about the business bottom line, and her mother is making her testy.
All this is enough to make anyone fantasize about packing a bag and starting anew — which is exactly what Maribeth does, mere days after heart surgery. After sending Jason a vague email and withdrawing $25,000 (because doesn’t everyone have immediate access to that kind of cash?), she abandons her family and job. Her destination? Pittsburgh.
It’s an intentional choice. After barely escaping death, Maribeth needs to learn about life — specifically, the circumstances of her adoption in Pittsburgh. Upon arriving in ’tahn, Maribeth Klein reinvents herself as M.B. Goldman and discovers others whose hearts have been emotionally bruised. Using the library’s computers to research her birth and adoption, she finds an expert who guides her toward answers. Wisely following up on her necessary post-op care, M.B. becomes the patient of Stephen Grant, a compassionately unconventional cardiologist accepting cash in lieu of insurance.
Renting a one-bedroom apartment in Bloomfield, M.B. forges a friendship with two students who serve as her guide to all things Pittsburgh: the many neighborhoods (Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Highland Park and others get shout-outs), the topography, and (of course) the fanaticism, rituals and unbridled passion of Steelers Nation.
Native Yinzers and transplants alike will enjoy and delight in the local flavor of “Leave Me,” which practically serves as the latest local “Best Of” list. (“She assumed Pittsburgh would be a, well, pit. But it wasn’t. All the graceful sweeping trees dappled in fall colors, all the handsome houses with their stained glass windows, elaborate brickwork, tidy gardens.”) Ms. Forman’s command of Pittsburgh is impressive, authentic and locally sourced; in the acknowledgements, she thanks local author Siobhan Vivian for schooling her “in the multitudinous wonders of the city.”
An author of seven young adult novels, “Leave Me” is Ms. Forman’s first novel featuring adults. It’s a quick read with a casual prose style, which seems in contrast to the seriousness of Maribeth’s actions. Her perplexing judgments often make her unlikable and readers may be split into two camps: those empathizing with the temptation to abandon life’s pressures versus those rationalizing that jeopardizing one’s health and abandoning one’s family (especially very young children) with only a vague email and no contact for months while you’re alive and well hundreds of miles away is heartless.
But hearts are complicated and fragile things. They break for medical reasons, but frequently crack from the pain caused by unresolved questions and conflicts, changing friendships and devastating losses. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave everything we know behind, connect with others who are hurting, and cross a few bridges for our hearts to heal.
Gayle Forman is scheduled to appear at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley for a reading and a signing at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
Melissa M. Firman is a writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com.
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