Sunday, August 21, 2011

Coming Up For Air ~ Patti Callahan Henry



Coming Up for Air


A beautifully written story about love - having it, losing it, rediscovering it and the lengths we'll go to for those we love.  The book opens at the funeral of Ellie's mother, Lillian, who we find out was a prominent member of Atlanta society, adored by many but with whom Ellie felt very detached.  We also learn that Ellie's marriage to Rusty is a troubled one even though he refuses to acknowledge it (Rusty has him some issues) and that all of the first born women in the family are named "Lillian" (they have a thing for the flower) but go by some variation of Lil, Lillian, Ellie, etc.   It's the female version of "This is my brother Larry and my other brother Larry and my other brother Larry." (you get the point)

Ellie's old boyfriend, Hutch shows up at the funeral claiming to have been in the middle of working on an exhibit that involved Lillian and he asks Ellie if she'd be willing to help him finish it.  She agrees, much to the chagrin of Rusty but then again, unless it was something Rusty wanted to do he's be chagrinned anyway.  Let's talk about our boy Rusty for a minute, shall we?  Rusty is a self centered, egotysitcal, controlling ignoramus.  He just doesn't have a clue when it comes to anyone but good 'ole Rusty.  He has some serious anger management issues too that he uses to control Ellie.  ("Hot and Cold" by Katy Perry could be his theme song)  His only concern is about whether or not their life "looks" good and whether or not something makes sense to him.  And golf.  Ellie is an artist and he can't understand why she gets consumed sometimes when she's working on a project. He'd rather she be a good little wifey and make sure the maintenance guy can get in the house while he's playing golf and fix whatever is broken. When she tries to talk to him about what's wrong in their marriage, he thinks buying her jewelry will fix it.  This is after he screams at her or throws something at the wall or hangs up on her and then gets all sweet and apologizes. He sounds like a keeper doesn't he?

Enough about Rusty, let's focus on Hutch.  Hutch was Ellie's college boyfriend and the guy she thought she'd spend forever with but unfortunately, Lillian didn't think he was good enough for her.  He didn't come from "good people" and Lillian tried her best to drive a wedge between Ellie and Hutch.  Hutch is kind and caring and he appreciates Ellie and her art.  He's just an all around good person. Unfortunately, Ellie learned (too late) that we all make choices and sometimes it isn't just one that changes the direction of our lives forever but a serious of choices.  Still after 20 years, and spending time together working on the project together, Ellie realizes that her love for Hutch never died.  She gave him up to be with Rusty because Rusty was "safe" but she realizes that living a safe life isn't always the best choice.

Ellie's research takes her to Alabama coast to stay at the Summer House of her mother's best friend, Birdie.  Birdie is full of love and grace and opens her home to whoever needs to come and stay.  There is a legend about her family's Summer House and that's - when people come and stay, they discover the truth about their lives.  It may not always be what they want to learn but it's the truth.  Sometimes when a friend asks me a question, before I give them an answer, I'll say to them, "Do you want me to tell you the truth or do you want me to tell you what you want to hear?"  This is how it is at Summer House.  Birdie is helpful in answering some of Ellie's questions about her mother but she doesn't answer them all because she says sometimes, you have to be okay with "just enough."

Hutch comes to Alabama too (he stays with a friend) and during their research, he and Ellie discover that Lillian played an active role in the Alabama civil rights movements in the 60's, including participating in Freedom bus rides, sit-ins and marches.  This is shocking to Ellie because this is not the same woman that she grew up with for a mother.  Ellie also discovers that Lillian had a love affair with a man over the course of two years. Lillian recorded all that happened between them and the heartbreaking end to their relationship but she never mentioned him by name.  Ellie begins asking around but no one will give her the name of this man.  Through her search for more information about who this person was she starts to understand just how devastating this loss was for her mother. She also learns that Lillian was trying to prevent Ellie from experiencing the same kind of loss with Hutch only to be the catalyst for it which is in the end a sad irony.

In the end, Ellie realizes that she's been living a parallel life to her mothers which really isn't living at all.  She is faced with making more choices, ones that she didn't plan on having to make but ones that will either bring her closer to the life she wants or continue in the life of false safety she's been living.

If you've ever suffered a major heartbreak, and seriously, if you're past puberty, you probably have, then this book may hit a nerve.  One of the major lessons learned is that you can't make someone love you, know matter how hard you try, will it or want them too, you just can't.  The other lesson is that your life is your story and you have to live it.  If you come to point in your story and it takes a turn you didn't expect, well, then sometimes you need to rewrite the ending.  While we all play a part in other people's stories, only our own story is uniquely ours...don't let anyone else tell you how to live it.






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