Friday, December 16, 2011

That Feeling of Falling: In Leah's Wake

In Leah's Wake
by Terri Giuliano Long
Paperback: Laughing Moon Publishing, Oct 1, 2010
Kindle: Amazon Digital Editions

Available at Amazon

In the arts, it's important to know which branches can lead us where we want to go. Music tells us what it sounds like, using instrumentation choices, rhythms and composition to evoke emotions. Painting shows us what it looks like, with color and shape bringing a certain amount of ambiance, using juxtapositions and composition inside the picture give us a sense of relationships. Sculpture can add that 3-D element to the visual arts, but none of them can answer the questions that fall into the category of “why” or give us historical perspective and clarify the background issues that led to the present reality. Writing can.

Which is why telling every bit of the story matters. “In Leah's Wake” is, in many ways, closer to a sculpture or a bas-relief, in which you can see all of the characters clearly, and see some of the relationships between them, but you get only a small sense of how they got that way. Leah is the one we can see and understand the most clearly, even though she is the one disturbing the family peace. We see the effect her parents have on her. We see the effect that she has on her parents. We see the younger sibling Justine trying desperately to sort out what's going on (in some ways she's more of a main character than Leah is). What we don't see is why things unfold as they do.

The dynamics in the household are wonderfully drawn by the author. Any family who's ever had a member spinning out of control is familiar with that phenomenon that happens almost of its own accord, a kind of bizarre magnetic effect where the struggling family member is always in focus, always under the microscope, always the center of attention, somehow the cause of everything else that happens. As the acting out expands, the focus narrows, and soon that one family member is all that anyone sees, and his or her behavior becomes all that matters. Other siblings just have to muddle through as best they can, ironically the intense focus being elsewhere takes the pressure off them, allowing them a bit of personal freedom so they can grow in ways the “bad girl” cannot. In the obsessive attempts to "fix" the rebelling member, self-assessment and perspective are completely lost. Leah's “wake” has lots of suggested meanings, from waking up to threatening waves from a self-centered motorboat operator, to death itself, leaving the implication that Leah is driving all of it.

The topic of this book is a vitally important one. Our culture has many a child acting out when they reach the age of rebellion, and many a parent who handles it in ways that make it worse. The tragedy of “good girl gone bad” cries to be explored in fiction in a way that actually enlightens the reader and helps them to see, by watching another family go through it, what might be similar in their own situation. They can ponder whether they have the same obsession with their childrens' success, the same passive sense that things are out of their control, the same fear that love isn't enough to get them through it all, and by reading Leah's story they may find ways to avoid tragedy in their own lives.  But when we leave this family at the end of the book,  we know there's been a tectonic shift, but to what, we cannot guess, because we don't have all the keys to the characters, and we need at least a hint of that to really feel closure.  

It's clear from interviews with Terri Giuliano Long, that it is her intent to have the reader think deeply about family interactions, expectations, juvenile rebellion, etc.  but there are some stories the author does not choose to tell.   Why is Leah's dad so obsessed with Leah's  success?   All parents want more for their children, but his need to control her future is not only urgent, but overwhelming, and we don't get to see why.  We don't understand why Leah's mom is so passive in the face of such pressure.  Maybe it was her upbringing, or her past, but we don't get to know.  The parents seem to have been given a possibly unearned reprieve, their motives and frustrations seem less clear, so the reader never feels empathy and understanding, and cannot determine their role in the events that follow.  The book would be considerably more powerful, and more useful as a cautionary tale to other parents,  if those missing details were available to the reader.

Leah's family is a mystery waiting to be solved. We see the disaster (in a mystery story it would be the murder), we see all the characters, and how they behave with one another, but there's no sense of investigating the deed, of finding the hidden motives of the possible perpetrators, and of coming to some conclusion about what went wrong.  The reader is left hanging because we don't know, in spite of everything that happens, if things will ever change, or even can change. 
Having said that, I believe the book certainly gets the reader's attention because the writing is good.  It brings us into the house, and into the action, where we can see and hear all the important conversations that bring this family to life, and while we never figure out if Leah's the problem or the victim, or both, it is still a very vivid view into a world most parents hope they never see.  It is a masterful  illustration of the problems both parents and children face in our culture, and a starting point for many a productive family conversation.


  1. Thank you so very much for this wonderfully thoughtful review, Gabriella! Very often, I think, in times of crisis, under duress, we act more on instinct than character or thought. We may ask why – we do ask why - but the questions are rarely answerable. The failure, it seems to me, is at least in part cultural - a result of misguided assumptions and expectations – as well as a failure of community, making root cause difficult to attribute. Of course, in a novel, that leads to frustration, which you articulate brilliantly. Your insights are extremely helpful to me, as a writer. Going forward, I will keep your points in mind; my writing, I truly believe, will improve because of it. I’m tremendously grateful for that!

  2. Wonderful review, Gabriella! Very insightful. If you aren't a therapist you should be. You just see such depth in this story; I'm astounded. Very nicely done :-D

    Please don't forget to cross-post to Amazon and Goodreads if you have a spare moment, and say "Hi" to Sunday for me :-D


  3. The new version of In Leah's Wake is out, and Terri Giuliani Long has done an excellent job of adding so much to the book that wasn't there before. The parents are more complex, with their own sets of issues, and the story is so much more vibrant. A rework is a difficult thing to do, and she's done a marvelous job of it.


We'd love to hear from you! Tell us what you're reading, what you want us to review, how we're doing, or just comment on the blog!