Caroline Leavitt Knows Family and Drama

Caroline Leavitt has always known how to draw her readers in from the very first page, and her newest book, Days of Wonder (Algonquin, $29.00) proves that she’s still at the top of her game. When the novel opens, we meet Ella Fitchburg, newly released from prison where she was sentenced for a crime whose details have yet to be revealed. Here are her first impressions of the world she’s been unable to take part in for six long years:

Ella stepped through the prison gate, blinded by the sun and the hard blue of the sky, frantically searching the crowd for her mother. At twenty-two, she still felt so, so young, but certainly not the fifteen she had been when she first arrived here. Freed, as if from a box, she stumbled forward but kept her eyes on her feet. If she fell, she knew she wouldn’t be able to get up…The air felt buttoned too tight about her throat. Colors vibrated, knocking her off balance…the gaping sky looked as if it might swallow her.

Even though we don’t know who Ella is or what she did, we are right up close and personal, and we can keenly feel her dislocation, her confusion, her fear. Gradually, we learn about the terrible night that ended up with Ella’s conviction; Leavitt drops the clues and information like breadcrumbs in the forest, leading us along. We learn too about the infant Ella gave birth to, the one that was whisked away before she ever got to see or hold her. Though her mother repeatedly tells her to forget about this child, Ella finds that she can’t, and when she learns the names and address of the adoptive parents, she moves to their city, propelled by an urgent and desperate need to reconnect with her daughter.

Chapters from Ella’s point of view are intercut with those of her mother and Jude, the boy with whom Ella was madly, extravagantly, in love. Helen began her life as Shaindy, and grew up in a tightly knit Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She knew her place both in her family and in the world, and felt safe and secure in it: We take care of our own,” her mother tells her. But as a young woman, she starts to have doubts: about the boys paraded before her as possible husbands, and about her own willingness to follow the path laid out before her, the one she was expected to walk without any questions or resistance.

Soon enough her inner doubts lead to concrete actions; she meets and then starts talking to a man in Central Park, a man whose very company is a violation of every rule she’s been raised to obey. She does not realize that he’s a predator.

When she and her parents learn that she’s pregnant, they cast her out. Shunned and reviled, she leaves home, has the baby—Ella—and does her best to raise her, determined to give Ella the kind of latitude and freedom she was denied as a child. But although she is utterly devoted to her daughter, she still misses the big, loving family of her youth; its absence is a hole in her heart.

Jude is the third major character, though we’re not given his point of view until later in the novel. He was as smitten with Ella as she was with him, but his stern and at times abusive father insists that they’re too young to be so committed, and he tries to separate them. All this tension is brought to a head on a night whose disturbing details neither Jude nor Ella can remember clearly.

This moving mediation on motherhood, family—both the one we’re born into and the one we create—is surely one of Leavitt’s finest. Her richly developed characters and palpable sense of place make the story leap from the pages and come alive; when it’s over, the truths it tells continue to resonate.

Yona Zeldis McDonough