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In This Novel, a Mother Risks Everything for a Second Chance

Category: Art & Culture,Books

Sick with remorse, Catherine aches for a do-over with her daughter. She’s always been a mother “who passes for competent but is in truth neglectful” to both Rachel and her brother, Rowan. And Catherine has isolated herself, leaving her husband, Michael, alone at their London home.


The title invites one to read with a questioning mind. Who are the shades here? Now that we’re far removed from the ancient gods, could “shade” mean something new? Another question looms: What would we risk for a second chance at love? An early incident gives both matters added gravity. For their third date, Michael, wooing a clearly aloof Catherine, takes her to Claudio Monteverdi’s ecstatic opera “L’Orfeo.” A heroic and mythic act of love plays out onstage as Orpheus forges his way to the land of dead souls, then leads his bride, Eurydice, home to the living — almost. “It isn’t about whether he was successful in bringing her back,” Catherine declares, deeply moved, “it’s that he went to get her at all.” That line shines its light down the rest of the book.

Citkowitz’s narrative flows seamlessly from past to present, folding time into pleats, shaking them gracefully loose. She has slipped easily into the roominess of a novel from her first book, “Ether,” a novella-and-stories collection that also tests the notion of being haunted. There are only a few misfires, as when Catherine cracks the password for Rachel’s cell, packed with texts to a secret boyfriend, by punching in 1234. And a twist at the end, too moving and shrewd to reveal, may require a larger suspension of disbelief.

After Rachel’s death, the Francis family splits, as families so often quietly do, into isolated orbits. Michael yearns for a closer connection with Catherine, yet he can’t forge his way to Kent and lead his wife home. Instead he is the family’s “benign onlooker,” whose refrain of “Ask your mother” may have led to Rachel’s accident.

Meanwhile, Catherine tries to tempt Keira with affection and offerings. When the girl vanishes, she becomes frantic. Ultimately, it’s Rowan who bursts from the Francis underworld. Away at school, researching climate change, he assumes an Orphic sense of mission. “Only urgent action will suffice,” he writes his father. His next move shocks both parents, especially Catherine, who now suspects Keira of targeting her son’s trust fund. But Michael finds Rowan priestlike in his passion. He too comes alive, though in quite a different way, while Catherine has her own remarkable sea change back in Kent.

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