I didn’t have high expectations for this book, which I picked up more or less on a whim, and if I had read a description of the plot first, I probably would have put it down unread. That would have been a shame, because it was a terrific reading experience.
Here’s the part that will make it sound awful: it’s narrated by a woman in a coma and is addressed to “you,” her husband. She has landed in a coma after rushing into a school that has caught fire. Her small son and the other students were safely evacuated, but when she realizes her nearly-adult daughter who is working at the school is inside, she doesn’t think; she acts. Now, she’s in the same hospital as her daughter (who is suffering from extensive burns and is sedated), and they find they can wander the halls of the hospital and talk to each other, if not to anyone else. Leaving the hospital is trickier – it’s painful, and the further they go, the more difficult it becomes – but they can manage it, just. In this way, they do what they can to learn who was responsible for the fire, which becomes particularly urgent when the police focus on an innocent person.
Lupton does an excellent job making this unlikely scenario work because she’s really good at writing about emotional responses and the relationships among the characters and manages to whip up an excellent plot, as well. It includes touches of commentary on the wider world (why are privately-run schools attractive to British parents? How might money influence decisions made at the school?) but is mostly a character-driven story told with imagination and perfect-pitch language.
One of the reasons I picked this book up is that I’m trying to do a better job of balancing my reading choices this year so that I don’t favor male authors though inattention. There are a lot of reasons that so much of the crime fiction I read is by men. I prefer books at the dark end of the spectrum. A lot of the books I read are sent to me by publishers to review, so they tend to be books with a publicity budget. My guess is that those budgets correlate loosely with hardcover publication, and men are more likely than women to be published in hardcover in this genre, at least going on the hundreds of books submitted annually for Edgar award consideration. I also pick up on ideas about what to read from reviews, which tend to favor male authors. All of these factors are interconnected and subtle and I’m not blaming anyone, because these biases are subtle and systemic. But what I can do is be conscious of my own choices. I have no doubt that plenty of women are writing books that will suit my tastes. I just need to make sure I’m not overlooking them.
As I finished this book, I did ponder whether male readers would enjoy it as much as I did. The protagonist is a woman. Her strongest passions revolve around the need to protect her children. The drama is doing that while being disembodied and voiceless. The resolution of the crime was not entirely satisfactory for me for reasons I can’t explain without a massive spoiler. But the way the author wraps up a central dilemma in the book – one involving a mother and her children – was both satisfying and emotional. In many ways it fits the definition of a category of book I’ve always bristled at: women’s fiction. It’s by a woman, stars a woman, and is primarily about her relationships (though in this case there’s a meaty mystery to go with it). To me, books by women about women and focused on relationships are novels and I’m not sure why they shouldn’t appeal as much to male readers as to female. Thinking about the appeal of this book, though, I found myself thinking “would a man feel differently about this book than a woman reader? Would he find the relationships overdone and the emotional part of the story manipulative or mawkish?” That’s hard to say – but for me, it was great fun to read and full of narrative invention.