The Rest of Her LifeThe Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From practically the opening page, this story was intense, emotional and gripping. The Rest of Her Life shows us how, from one minute to the next, one error in judgment—a teeny, tiny moment of inattention—can profoundly alter so many lives forever. I found both the plot and characters to be intelligent, moving, and utterly convincing.

Distracted by a stray dog, eighteen-year-old Kara Churchill accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian in a crosswalk while driving her parents’ Suburban SUV. The victim, Bethany Cleese, is a fellow neighborhood teen being raised by a single mom. One beloved young life is irretrievably lost, but many, many others are deeply affected. Although Kara’s punishment will likely be light (a reckless driving charge), Kara is hell-bent on punishing herself to the max. She withdraws, stops eating, and sinks into a deep depression while her father tries to do “damage control.” Gary Churchill orders the family not to talk to anyone—not even their closest friends, mother-daughter duo Eva (the town gossip) and Kara’s best friend, Willow. Gary’s all about lawyers, insurance, and making sure Kara avoids jail and starts college in the fall on schedule as if nothing happened.

Kara’s mom, Leigh (from whose point of view this story is told) processes the tragedy quite differently. She becomes obsessed with Bethany’s mother, Diane, and grows increasingly desperate to finagle Diane’s forgiveness even as the dents in her own relationship with Kara become all-the-more evident under the weight of her family’s sudden misfortune. To Leigh, Kara’s carelessness offers proof to the entire small town of Danby, Kansas that she has failed as a mother. She is reminded of something Jackie Kennedy once said: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” Damning herself, Leigh concludes that “despite her best intentions, apparently, she’d somehow bungled raising her daughter. Now that Kara had bungled too, it was true—nothing else seemed to matter.”

Although on the surface, The Rest of Her Life is about a fatal accident, Leigh’s realization about her maternal inadequacy is what gives this story its beating heart. As the narrative progresses, we slowly learn why Leigh has had such a difficult time with motherhood: She was abandoned by her own mother as a 16-year-old, left to live in a trailer with her hapless if kind-hearted older sister (herself a young single mom), and basically had to grope her way through life in order to become a teacher and form a stable family as an adult.

The Rest of Her Life reveals just how difficult it is to parent a child when one has had defective (or no) parenting herself. Understanding intellectually that her mom did the best she could given how she was raised did little to heal Leigh’s festering emotional wounds. Even though Leigh could dance circles around her own self-absorbed, clueless mother, she has difficulty connecting with others—including her own family, and slowly comes to realize that, despite her best efforts to be a different sort of parent than her mom, her own daughter simply doesn’t like her. At this crucial time when she most wants to comfort and connect with Kara, she is blocked at every turn. Stomach-clenching scenes are abundant throughout this novel, but  the clumsy mother-daughter encounters are perhaps the most heartbreaking  in their authenticity; they certainly struck a nerve with me.

A well-rounded cast of nuanced secondary characters—including younger son Justin; sister Pam; Eva and her daughter, Willow; Cynthia Tork (the book-censoring mom of one of Leigh’s students); and especially Bethany’s mom, Diane—pepper this already compelling tale with thorny complexity as Leigh grapples with her day-to-day connections and commitments. After all, no matter the pain we might be suffering inside, life marches on all around us.

Though I am perhaps in the minority in finding Laura Moriarty's novel to be the rare gem that left me emotionally spellbound, in this reader's humble opinion, The Rest of Her Life is a truly extraordinary book deserving of five stars. I would give it six if I could.

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