Caroline Leavitt’s new novel—her ninth—starts off with a bang. Literally. Isabelle Stein is fleeing her Cape Cod home and husband after learning that not only has been cheating on her for the last five years, he’s about to father a child with his lover. Stricken and grieving, Isabelle piles her clothes and cameras—she’s a photographer, an identity that is central to the story—into her car and takes off. The day is foggy and even though she is driving well below the speed limit, her visibility is seriously impaired. Suddenly, through the fog she spies a car, facing the wrong way and stopped in the road. In front of the car stands a blonde woman in a red dress. Isabelle feels herself losing control of her car and as she does, she notices there is someone else there too—a boy—who sprints to safety. But the woman remains where she is despite Isabelle’s panicked shouting. Isabelle gets closer and closer; there’s no room to swerve, and she cannot stop. And then, “…the two cars slam together like a kiss.”
“So begins “Pictures of You,” a powerful novel about love, responsibility, sin and atonement. In graceful, measured prose, Leavitt not only limns the outer lives of her characters, but delves deep into their hearts as well. What are some of the repercussions of this life altering—and in one case, life ending—collision? Lilith’s Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asked Leavitt about this and other topics; their conversation is below.
“Pictures of You” deals with issues of moral responsibility, guilt and expiation. As you shaped and wrote the book, did these issues occur to you within a religious or spiritual framework? If so, can you elaborate?
They did occur to me in a spiritual way. I am a big believer in karma. I believe that there are forces in the universe that work with us or against us, and that really, we do reap what we put out there. I loved the idea of Sam [the boy Isabelle saw in the road] thinking Isabelle was an angel, and in a real sense, she was to him. She saves his life in so many ways, and perhaps that goes to the idea that people really can be angels, here on earth.
We know Isabelle was driving the car that killed April, so she is literally guilty, even though it was not her fault. But is she guilty in some more profound sense? Do you believe that she can—or did—atone for her crime?
I don’t really think she was guilty in that there was fog, and she did try to stop the car. But her guilt as in the sense of not taking advantage of all the gifts she had. She stayed in a town she hated. She stayed in a dead-end job. She wasn’t really running to something, which she should have done, as much as she is running away from her life. I don’t want to give away plot, but let’s just say she does atone for those things. What I can talk about is that as she cares for Sam, whom I believe she loves more than Charlie [Sam’s father and the widowed husband of April]–and she certainly does love Charlie–she cares for herself in some way. She opens up the world for Sam with photography, but she also opens up her own world by beginning to see the possibilities and the things that she can do.
Why did you wait to reveal that Isabelle was Jewish? What meaning does that have in terms of her character and the story as a whole?
I’m really spiritual and I love the idea of people coming to belief in their own way. I loved the story of Isabelle’s mother who in her time of grief became a born again Christian and loved the one man she felt would not die or leave her–Jesus. Isabelle is Jewish because Jewish people are often very introspective and they often feel guilty for all sorts of things–at least, that was the way it was in my family. Guilt plays such a large part in my novel, that it meant sense to me that Isabelle would be Jewish. I also, quite frankly, wanted to write about someone who felt like me about these matters, and that meant that I would have to make her Jewish.
What meaning, if any, did her mother’s conversion have for her? Did she embrace a new faith along with her mother or did she retain a sense of her Jewish identity?
Isabelle remained Jewish. She could understand why her mother wanted to be Christian (Jesus would never leave her or die on her), and although she likes the St. Christopher medal, it has nothing to do with belief for her. It is more something that can tie her to her mother. I don’t think Isabelle will ever give up her Jewish identity. It’s simply who she is.
A good portion of the book is taken up with the idea of angels—how they function, what they can—and cannot—do, what role they play in the lives of humans. Did you do much research about this? Did what you read or learned correspond with Jewish thinking and teaching on the subject? What is your own view about angels?
I did do research, which I found to be fascinating. When I discovered that the Hebrew word for angel is messenger, a chill ran through me. It fit perfectly! I even have Sam looking that up and seeing the definition. Sam believes Isabelle is an angel, who can get a message to his dead mother. I also loved that “angels give God distance.” That fit in perfectly with my whole theme of the yearning to connect, and never really knowing the ones we love, which in this case, includes God, doesn’t it? I do believe in God and I’m not sure about angels. However, I have an open mind. The more I read about quantum physics, actually, the more sure I am that anything is possible. Most physicists say that the universe is more incredible and far stranger than what we can imagine, and I love that.