According to her website, Lauren Grodstein is the author of four novels, the last of which is Our Short History. She teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers-Camden. She lives in South Jersey with her husband and a dog. After first looking at the dust jacket, I was afraid it would be depressing, or worse, boring. But something pulled me in. I think it was the book jacket which featured a silhouette of a woman holding the hand of a child. After about 20 pages, I knew I had to finish it.
Karen Neulander is an experienced manager, who is running a local campaign. She is also a single mother of a precocious six-year-old. When she revealed she was pregnant, Dave, the father of the child, abandoned her. He had said, in no uncertain terms, he did not want to have any children. Fast forward 6 years. Karen has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. The doctors have given her, perhaps, two years. She decides to write a memoir, for her son. She is smart and feisty. Karen knows what she wants and how to achieve it.
Her abandonment, by a man she loved, and whom she thought loved her, all boil into resentment against Dave, and a desire to protect her son. Grodstein writes, “Allison and I frequently discuss issues of privilege and economy. She says it doesn’t mean we have to raise our kids broke just because that’s how we grew up. She thinks that insecurity about money doesn’t necessarily make a person more empathetic or kind: Sometimes it just makes a person nervous her whole life. And she’s right, I know she’s right, but still it irks me to think you’ll never understand that you are, in so many ways, so very lucky. Allison says, ‘But in at least one way you aren’t lucky at all. None of us are. And money is no compensation.’ // There is no compensation. I am your only parent; I am forty-three years old; I have stage IV ovarian cancer. I have perhaps two or three years left in my life, and once I am gone you will move here, to Mercer Island, to live with my sister, Allison, and her family. You can bring your hamster and all your toys. You can bring anything you want. You know this, Jake. You know that if it were up to me, I would live forever with you in my arms” (5).
Jake begins asking questions about his father, and Karen begins preparing her son for her death. Grodstein writes, “It seems to me, Jacob, that when the time comes for you to pick a life partner, you should pick someone who behaves well in a crises. It’s very easy to think you know someone – it’s very easy to think you know yourself – when life is calm and orderly, movie dates on Saturdays, chicken dinner at seven. But people become their truest selves in emergencies. Selfish people jump into the life raft first. Cowards sneak out the back door. Liars say whatever it takes to get out of trouble. Craven people walk away from what they have wrought. But good, morally sound people take responsibility for their actions and stand up for the people they care about, even if they put themselves at risk. Even if they put their own desires second. I want you to choose someone who is good and morally sound” (77-78). This sums up her relationship with Dave, while preparing Jacob for his future.
Lauren Grodstein’s novel, Our Short History is a story filled with wisdom and cautions for Jacob. Despite the looming tragedy, there is humor, anger, and fears Karen wants Jacob to understand. 5 stars.