Rare as such cases are, they do happen. While some may condemn the parents involved as careless, I suspect that most parents hearing of such cases of accidental death respond by hugging their own children more tightly that evening while whispering to themselves: “There by for the grace of God go I.” They easily recognize the possibility for mistakes in the pace of their own frenetic lives.
In Rachel’s Contrition (978-1-933184-72-2, $14.95), Michelle Buckman tells the story of Rachel Winters, a mother whose daughter has died by being forgotten and left in a hot car. Rachel suffers a complete breakdown after her daughter’s death, which she blames on her husband’s carelessness. Because of her breakdown and her time in an institution, a court awards Rachel’s husband Sinclair custody of their surviving child, a 4-year-old boy.
As Buckman reveals more of Rachel’s past, we learn that she grew up poor in Raleigh, that her emotionally abusive mother and her mother’s many lovers caused emotional havoc in the young Rachel, that she turned to boys and drugs for comfort, and that Dr. Sinclair Winters of Asheville fell in love with her, married her, and brought her into his own world of wealth and privilege. For a number of years, Rachel then leads the life of a wealthy socialite, traveling overseas, joining the country club, tending to her marriage and to her children.
The death of her daughter seemingly ends this part of her life. In the wake of her breakdown, she loses her husband, her home, her son, her friends and her self-respect. After her release from the hospital, she moves into a pool house converted to an apartment on the property of a wealthy friend, whose own son, a teenager, is murdered and whose adopted daughter Lilly dresses like a Goth but reads Saint Therese of Lisieux. Wrapped up in grief and guilt, her life a shambles, Rachel reaches out to Lilly for companionship, comforts her for the loss of the stepbrother who was also falling in love with Lilly, and becomes her friend and confidant. It is Lilly who introduces her to the idea of Saint Therese’s “Little Way,” which is to seek God in the ordinary tasks of the everyday world, and it is this Little Way and various revelations about her past that help Rachel recover her sanity.
Although not all readers will take to Rachel’s Contrition — the book will appeal much more strongly to women, and some readers may find the tone of Rachel’s desperation at times irritating and whiny — Buckman’s novel deserves praise on several levels. First, of course, it is set in Asheville and points east, and readers who enjoy novels with local color will find it here. Buckman, who lives on the Carolina coast, nonetheless clearly knows Asheville and the surrounding mountains well, and recreates the city on the page in a credible and entertaining way.
She also gives us a fine portrait of a woman suffering from enormous and unbearable distress. She shows us the effects on Rachel Winters of alcohol, sedatives, fatigue, and mental collapse. Though all people grieve in their own individual ways, Rachel’s deep sadness and bitter regret over the death of her daughter as well as over some of the decisions she has made affecting her own life will strike readers as universal emblems of despair. Buckman presents Rachel as a flawed character, a woman fragmented not only by her daughter’s death, but by her efforts to come to terms with her past life with her own mother. Frequently, too, Rachel misjudges the motives and actions of those around her, particularly her husband. Yet these same flaws somehow add to her appeal, completing the ultimate vitality of her character as she attempts to work past the failures and disappointments of her life.
Finally, Buckman’s novel is also a story of conversion. Too often we hear that people in distress turn to God out of weakness and fear, that they are cowards unable to face life head-on. Here, in Rachel, we have a woman, a wife and mother, who fits this category — she is weak, she is broken, and she does ultimately seek God — but like other people who must live in that awful darkness cast at some point over the life of every human being, she is also depicted as looking for answers to desperate questions, as a tormented soul who wants not only consolation but truth. By using the teenage Lilly for Rachel’s guide, and by the revelations offered in the last few pages of the book, Buckman avoids the sugary sentimentality that color so many novels of this sort.
Here then is an earnest story of love, marriage, parenting and faith that not only entertains, but may help some of us to reflect more deeply on our own lives.