Author: Liza Gyllenhaal
Publisher: NAL-New American Library (Penguin)
Pub. Date: September 6, 2011
When I was a case worker (in child welfare), I transported children in my car all the time. I will never forget the first time I had to put a car seat in my car and the absurdity I found in that I was expected to figure it out on my own. I had no children for which I'd have been given experience. And I remember the looks on the other girls' faces as they scoffed at my unknowing. Ironic that in a child welfare agency I was tasked with doing, on my own, what new mothers are encouraged to learn from safety classes at the local fire stations. One of the girls did resign to helping me. Anyway, (I know you're wondering what this has to do with So Near), this situation is one I couldn't help but think of several times through the course of this story....
Jenny and Cal are parents to two-year-old Betsy and life is pretty good. Cal and his brother, Kurt, own a construction company, Horigan Builders, that (though it wasn't specified, I believe) works hand-in-hand with their father's business, Horigan Lumber and Hardware. Business isn't doing quite as well due to the downed economy, but the Horigan's have a lot of support. Then one day, driving home after a Horigan's vs. Horigan's baseball game, Cal's jeep overturns and Betsy is thrown from the car and is killed. Jenny and Cal's marriage, then, is ultimately affected as they each grieve in their own ways; but they also each have a secret, one in which they each take the blame and feel an overwhelming guilt, as they each believe they are the cause of their child's death.
So Near is told in first person but alternates between Jenny and Cal's points of views. This format worked well for this story because it gives the reader an all-knowing perspective that is necessary to one of the underlying concepts. So Near is about how a marriage can fall apart based on simple miscommunications. In seeing both Jenny's and Cal's points of view (often the same situation from both sides), we can literally see the mistakes being made. It's akin to being a marriage counselor working with a couple and seeing the big picture that the couple can't. It had me crying out for them because despite the magnitude of the tragedy they were enduring, the potential demise of their marriage was truly based on such simple concepts. And much of the source of their miscommunication was the guilt they each felt about the accident for which neither wanted to admit to the other.
So they each handle their grief separately. However, while Jenny does by focusing on her gardening, Cal does so by taking on Gannon Baby Products, the manufacturer of the car seat Betsy had been in. He hopes that a lawsuit against them will maybe prevent any future accidents, if not make them pay for being what could be the cause of Betsy's death. I loved how Gyllenhaal was able to portray the emotions Jenny and Cal went through. While not everyone has experienced this specific situation, emotions are universal. I loved the following quote because it demonstrates the need people have to externalize their difficult feelings. Here is when Cal is first talking with the lawyer who will help him file the suit:
"I slumped back in my chair. My heart was racing. Yes! I thought. It was as though Lester had been able to put shape and meaning to the anger and confusion that I'd been living with these past three months." (p. 116)In the meantime, Jenny imagines she sees Betsy everywhere but explains how this is not the strangeness in her life but, rather, the other way around:
"It wasn't the first time I imagined I saw Betsy. Though it's more sensing her presence than actually seeing her. These visitations never feel scary or crazy to me. For the brief seconds that I know she's there -- reaching out for me -- everything actually feels right again. Normal. It's the rest of my life that seems so out of kilter. It's as though I exist in a constant state of vertigo." (p. 127)And one more of Jenny describing the totality of the grief she has felt in her life:
"Sometimes, oddly, I find myself confusing my memories of Betsy -- or more my sense of loss and longing -- with those that I have of my mother. As if all tears trickle down into a single pool eventually -- and all great sadness becomes one. " (p. 132)Because of their grief and inability to communicate with each other, and also because of the secret guilt they each feel, Jenny and Cal make some bad decisions. Their decisions saddened me, and I know some readers will not like that part. I did wonder if parts of the ending and Jenny's and Cal's reactions to their behaviors were a little too pat, but I could see that part being justified as well.
After writing most of this review, I realize I didn't get much into the car seat issue, after all. But that is also integral to the story. Was or was not the car seat at fault for Betsy's death? I think in some ways this becomes the focus for Cal because, as alluded to in the earlier quote, we often need something to define a situation or make a tragedy purposeful.
Although So Near was a book about a tragedy and the enduring grief related to it, (as well as actually some other family dynamics which I didn't mention here), for me the overarching message was about the marriage and how easily miscommunication can spiral. You'll probably have moments, like I did, of wanting to shout, "Just tell him/her what you're thinking and everything will be okay!" And hopefully everyone can take something away from that for their own marriages and relationships.