Coming Up For Air – Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry’s heroines all have the same problem: they are women of a certain age at a crossroads in their lives. For Amy, the protagonist in my first Henry novel Losing the Moon, it’s the unexpected reunion with her college boyfriend, Nick. In Where the River Runs  it’s the emotions rekindled by revisiting a tragedy from Meridy’s youth.

Then there’s Ellie Calvin, the main character in Coming Up For Air. Ellie realizes at her coming-up-for-airmother’s funeral that she no longer loves her husband, Rusty. Truth be told, he’s a bit of a douche, a passive aggressive clout from the right side of the tracks. What Ellie really longs for is Hutch, her “bad boy” college boyfriend. Of course, she doesn’t know that just yet. It’s not until he’s suddenly standing in front of her and

…I saw his face. Twenty years later, minutes and hours and days rearranged to allow me to see him again as if time hadn’t passed at all. Mostly I saw his eyes: almond shaped and kind, brown with green underneath, as if the eyes had meant to be the color of forest ferns and then at the last minute changed their mind.

As a reader, you pretty much know what’s going to happen about then – all that remains to be seen is just how meandering the journey. In this instance, Hutch is an historian and he’s been working on an exhibit at the Atlanta History Centre, an exhibit honouring some of the South’s great dames – in which Ellie’s mother, Lillian,  figures prominently. Ellie has had a prickly relationship with her mother. Much of the acrimony,  ironically, involved Hutch.

Then Ellie finds a journal her mother kept. The entries, one a year, reveal that Ellie’s mother wasn’t always the proper and stiff woman Ellie had grown up. In fact, she’d had a deep and passionate love affair before she’d married Ellie’s father to a man identified only as Him.(Not sure why it’s capitalized.)  Furthermore, she’d been involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Obviously, Ellie and Hutch need to find out what all this means and so they head down to the Alabama coast where Lillian’s best friend, Ms. Birdie, lives. Ms. Birdie also happens to be Ellie’s best friend’s mom…so, see how that all works out? Of course, Ms. Birdie is reluctant to tell Ellie anything much. There’s still half a book to get through, after all.

I read the whole thing, of course I did. It’s not because it’s full of hot sex, either. Hutch and Ellie barely exchange a platonic kiss. It’s not because I particularly cared about any of the characters. Even the revelation of who the mysterious Him was is a disappointment. I was hoping Lillian had been really brave.

I guess I didn’t give up on Coming Up For Air because the romantic in me wants to see the potential for love at a certain age. I’m older than Ellie and I don’t have a marriage to walk away from anymore, but I do – sometimes – long for that chemical connection. Of course, I don’t have pots of money allowing me to step away from my life and go live in a magical cottage on the water. I also don’t have a “one-that-got-away” college boyfriend.

If our lives are a story and we are characters in that story, perhaps Ellie’s Uncle Cotton’s question is valid: “What’s the next best thing to happen here?”

Unfortunately, I think Henry took the path most traveled, but I guess if you like happily-ever-after that’s probably okay.

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