“Separation Anxiety” by Laura Zigman

Separation AnxietyA year ago, my husband and I had to make the difficult decision to euthanize our elderly Boston terrier. Afterward, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get another dog; I wanted to be free to travel, my ultimate goal being to divide my time between our home in California and an apartment my family owns in Stockholm, Sweden. However, a couple months ago, the director of the rescue organization from which we got our previous dogs got in touch, gently urging us to consider adopting a seven-month-old Boston puppy, an owner surrender.

My husband fell for him immediately; I was more skeptical, but by the time the coronavirus lockdown came around, I had begun to believe the dog was the only thing keeping me sane. I’d always been skeptical of the concept of emotional support animals, but now I understand.

So I am definitely the target audience for Laura Zigman’s Separation Anxiety, about a middle-aged woman who begins wearing her dog in a baby sling when her life starts falling apart. When I opened the book and saw that Part One is titled “Sheltering In Place,” a phrase I had rarely ever heard until earlier this month, when I started hearing it several times a day, it seemed almost eerie. (The title is actually a punning reference to the dog’s breed—she’s a Sheltie—and not any sort of stay-at-home order.)

The book’s main character, Judy, is technically separated from her anxiety-ridden pothead husband, who has moved into the basement of their home; her 13-year-old son is having trouble fitting in at school; her best friend is dying of cancer. The only thing that gives her comfort is the warm and satisfying feeling of carrying the dog close to her body: “Those hours when the dog is in the sling are restorative for me… wearing Charlotte is helping me get through the end of Teddy’s childhood… instead of turning to my husband with that overwhelming sadness and longing, I’ve turned to my dog.”

When she was younger, Judy wrote a wildly successful children’s book that was turned into a PBS series, but after many years of struggling with writer’s block, she now writes brief online posts for “a health and happiness website” called Well/er. (Judy’s story has parallels to Zigman’s own, according to this interview; the author turned to ghostwriting after her successful career as a novelist dried up.) Judy’s attempts to get her groove back include taking an in-person creativity seminar run by an Instagram influencer, which has disastrous results.

A lot of the things that happen to Judy in this book are pretty cringeworthy, especially that ill-fated weekend seminar, but Zigman writes about her with such obvious sympathy and affection that it’s impossible not to root for her. After finishing the book, I Googled “baby slings”—this was just a matter of curiosity; I don’t particularly want to wear my Boston terrier, and I sincerely doubt that my very energetic pup would let me do so—and was surprised to see that a couple of the Google image results showed people toting dogs in slings. Will Zigman’s book start a trend? People need all the comfort they can get at this difficult time, and if carrying your dog helps you through this, I see no reason to resist.

“How to Walk Away” and “What You Wish For” by Katherine Center

How To Walk AwayI downloaded Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away to my e-reader before going on a trip last month—a trip out of town! Ah, the pre-quarantine days; what a world that was!—and decided to save it for later when I realized that it begins with a plane crash. If at all possible, I try to avoid reading about plane crashes when I’m actually flying on an airplane. Sometimes, they pop up halfway through (I’m looking at you, Patty Jane’s House of Curl), but the one in How to Walk Away is right there at the top.

Margaret Jacobsen hates flying, but her boyfriend Chip has been taking lessons, and when he insists on taking her for a spin, she can’t bring herself to say no. After an in-flight marriage proposal, everything seems perfect—until a storm comes up, causing the plane to crash-land. Chip walks away without a scratch, but Margaret is left a paraplegic with serious burns on her neck. Cowardly Chip can’t bear to face her, but as she heads into rehab, Margaret receives an unexpected visitor: her older sister Kitty, who has been estranged from the family for several years. Why did Kitty disappear? And what secret is Margaret’s hunky-but-surly physical therapist hiding?

How to Walk Away reminded me quite a bit of a gender-swapped version of Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, though far less tragic (thank goodness; I’m not up for tragedies right now). Unlike Will in Me Before You, Margaret tends toward the cheerful and good-hearted, though she suffers setbacks that (very realistically) grind her down and cause her to lose hope at times. Still, you can always count on Center for a happy ending, and I hope that never changes.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Center’s newest novel, What You Wish For (no relation to Careful What You Wish For!), which will be published in July. I sincerely hope all of the bookstores will have reopened by then.

What You Wish ForSam Casey is the librarian at a progressive and creative elementary school in Galveston, TX. When the principal, who was like a father to Sam (whose own father is long out of the picture), dies unexpectedly, he is replaced by a guy Sam used to work with earlier in her career, when she lived in California. Duncan Carpenter was a zany and imaginative teacher, and Sam was madly in love with him. When he began dating someone else, she quit her job and moved on in an attempt to deal with her heartbreak. So she imagines it’ll be difficult to have to see him again on a daily basis.

However, the fun and wacky Duncan is gone, replaced by a suit-and-tie-wearing stickler for the rules who wants to paint the colorful walls of the school gray. Sam can’t understand what happened, and this is where I really started getting annoyed with this book. Does anyone at the school know about this crazy little invention called Google? Literally two minutes of searching, and they would have known everything about why Duncan changed. That’s what everyone does in the 21st century! And this book is definitely set in the present day.

Despite that rather large caveat, once Duncan’s past finally comes to light, the book really grew on me, and the ending is just amazingly good. I particularly loved this quote, from the widow of the school’s former principal: “Life doesn’t ever give you what you want just the way you want it. Life doesn’t ever make things easy. How dare you demand that happiness should be yours without any sacrifice—without any courage? What an incredibly spoiled idea—that anything should come easy? Love makes you better because it’s hard. Taking risks makes you better because it’s terrifying. That’s how it works. You’ll never get anything that matters without earning it. And even what you get, you won’t get to keep. Joy is fleeting. Nothing lasts. That’s exactly what courage is. Knowing all that going in—and going in anyway.”

Those words definitely resonated with me this week. Just don’t take any risks that involve gathering in crowds or skipping your hand-washing. Stay indoors and read!

“The Night Agent” by Matthew Quirk

The Night AgentPeter Sutherland is an FBI agent working in the White House, where he is tasked with doing an extremely dull job: waiting for the phone to ring. Peter is assigned to the night action desk in the Situation Room, where an emergency line “sat on his desk in silence as it had nearly all of his last 284 nights on the watch. In those endless hours between dusk and dawn, he would stare at it, willing it to ring.”

When the phone finally does ring, Peter may wish it had stayed silent, since a young woman’s desperate plea—“He’s here. He’s inside. He’s going to kill me.”—leads him on a chase through Washington, D.C. that nearly costs him his life, and exposes him to some of the country’s most dangerous and deadly secrets.

One of the reasons Peter found himself stuck on desk duty is because his father, who also worked for the FBI, was accused of leaking the names of Russian embassy staff who were secretly working for the U.S. The Russians were brought back to Moscow and executed; tainted by scandal, Peter’s father got drunk and drove his car into a highway divider. Was he really guilty of betraying his country? “The truth died with him,” but Peter “inherited the suspicions, the presumed guilt, along with his father’s name, as if it ran in the blood.” Because of his father’s legacy, Peter has always been a man who plays by the rules, never steps out of line, and unconditionally trusts his superiors. But when he begins to suspect that there’s a Russian mole in the White House, he learns that the only person he can rely on is himself:

“He’d been so careful for so many years, doing everything right, following every rule. He knew part of the reason why: he was afraid of what would happen if he strayed, afraid of finding out that he was his father’s son, an all-American face wrapped around something ruthless, dark, and lethal. And now he took that inheritance as a gift. He needed to survive.”

The idea of the Russians (led, of course, by a Putin-like figure) having kompromat on people at high levels of the U.S. government is certainly a timely one. When I picked up The Night Agent, it looked like a pretty hefty novel, coming in at about 420 pages, but once I started reading, the book grabbed me immediately, and I finished it in a couple of sittings. With its short, punchy, action-packed chapters, The Night Agent is a slick and satisfying thriller.

“The Other Family” by Loretta Nyhan

The Other FamilyIt used to be the case that people who were adopted and wished to find their birth parents had to go to extremes—hiring private detectives, requesting records that may or may not be available, or signing up for reunion registries. Today, however, there’s a simpler option, which involves spitting into a vial and sending it to a DNA genealogy service.

Ally Anderson had never considered trying to delve into her past. Her adoptive mom, who raised Ally as a single parent, always made it extremely clear that she was not interested in pursuing the subject: “My origins were barely ever mentioned, as though Mom had conjured me out of thin air. And from what I understood, it was as if she had—my birth mother had never tracked me down, and my adoption was as closed as a locked door.” But Ally’s 10-year-old daughter Kylie suffers from a serious autoimmune disorder, and when her new doctor asks for a family history, Ally wonders if it’s finally time to begin searching.

Through the website Your Past Is a Present, Ally discovers that while her birth mom has since passed away, her sister Micki is alive. Ally’s newfound aunt is the vibrant and charismatic owner of a bridal salon for women over 40, and while she doesn’t have her own kids, she and her husband are fostering a 16-year-old. Micki couldn’t be more thrilled to meet Ally and Kylie, and before long, the two of them are spending more and more time with Micki and her family, while keeping it a secret from Ally’s mom. Meanwhile, Kylie’s new doctor is trying some unconventional treatments, which Ally hopes may finally give her daughter a chance at a less restrictive lifestyle.

Loretta Nyhan deftly tackles weighty subjects in an often-lighthearted manner; The Other Family is a fun read which never gets too heavy-handed. At the end of the book, I felt like I’d gained new insight into what it’s like for people who have to navigate the world while suffering from potentially-deadly allergies, and the families who never stop fighting for them.