Restlessness is a human condition. As human beings, we strive. We strive to do more, to be better, to feed our souls, to attain happiness, to do what truly fulfills us, and to meet the standards we set in place for ourselves. Restlessness knows no gender, age group, or class. It’s universal. However, if you happen to be approaching a milestone age, like age forty, when you grow restless and bored and develop an urge to do something more with your life, many are quick to attach the midlife crisis condition to you.
The midlife crisis as a jumping off point to a story has become redundant and trivial to me; as if someone needs to be reduced to their hormones and intimate mental processes in order to have the audacity to expect or to create meaningful fulfillment in their lives. Women’s thoughts, emotions, and actions are already too often reduced to their hormones and basic bodily functions; for instance, if a woman is angry with her husband or boyfriend, one of the first responses most women will receive from him is in the form of a question, ‘Are you PMSing?’ Nevertheless, the midlife crisis is precisely what Kaira Rouda chose to force onto her main character, 39-year-old doting wife and mother Kelly Johnson, in her latest novel Here, Home, Hope.
It’s summertime and Kelly believes that this summer is destined to be just like the previous summers before. Her two sons are at summer camp in Maine, her husband is immersed in his career as a prestigious and accomplished attorney, and she will be left to stay around her middle-upper class, pruned and perfect neighborhood that comes a little too close in description to the suburban neighborhood of the show Desperate Housewives. She will lounge around her million dollar home while watching marathons of Law & Order and gaining her annual six pounds. However, this summer is different.
Kelly has just undergone a mammogram and while she received a negative diagnosis, it was the kick in the pants she needed to look around and take stock of her life. A stay at home mom who quit her job when she had her first child, leaving behind something that she loved to do and with it, her passion, two children who do not need her as much as they used to, a bout of depression, no real hobby besides her prized hydrangeas, and a whole lot of envy for her two friends who seem like they are living the perfect existences, Kelly’s newfound restlessness is combating by splurging on clothes and overspending on her hair, sporadic psychiatrist appointments that she is embarrassed to be seen at, a list of aspects of her life that she wants to change written down on Post-It notes and scattered throughout her house and the inside of her car, and a sense of determination that leads her to take on way too much.
After reconnecting with her two close friends whose lives she has envied–strong, professional and accomplished businesswomen who also look flawless and put-together–she realizes the reality of their lives is quite a different story.
Charlotte, a real estate agent who is described (on numerous occasions) as thin and by extension, beautiful, continues to achieve success in her career while raising her two twin daughters and, as Kelly finds out, a deteriorated marriage that ends in an affair and eventually moving in with her new boyfriend. Charlotte’s new boyfriend, however, just so happens to be the husband of Kelly’s other friend Kathryn. Kathryn has focused on her career throughout adulthood, climbing the rungs of the corporate ladder and breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling. Every aspect of Kathryn’s life is about to change; she has been let go from her job due to cutbacks, she and her husband are divorcing while he moves in with Charlotte and her two daughters, and to find balance in her sudden tumultuous life, she retreats to a ranch in Montana, leaving her teen anorexic daughter Melanie in Kelly’s care.
When Charlotte scores the listing of the house across the street from Kelly’s from a family who have just split up, she gives Kelly the idea for a new business of her own–home staging. She jumps into home staging in the same way she takes on interfering in the personal lives of her friends and then promptly judging them to the point of lashing out and then avoiding them for days after they confide their secrets and life decisions in her; she immerses herself in it to the point of nearly drowning.
Kaira Rouda laces several important issues throughout Here, Home, Hope and when you decide to bring up these incredibly complex issues that affect millions of people throughout the world, you take on a certain level of responsibility. If you cast off these issues as not being as serious or as detrimental as they really are, you are immediately discounting the struggles and in some cases, the lives of those who have fallen victim to them.
For instance, when Kelly is doing a walk-through of the house across the street that she is staging, she hears someone in the house that turns out to be Bob, the man who had put the house up for sale after his wife left him. He is falling down drunk and when he hears Kelly in the house, he goes downstairs to talk to her. It takes him just a few minutes to start talking about how her husband and his soon-to-be ex-wife should get together so he could have Kelly and then proceeds to force himself onto her until she can just barely make a narrow escape from the house and run home. I believe that it is Rouda’s ignorance of just how traumatic this is to most women who survive having a man force themselves onto them. Kelly’s character even goes on to question whether she had been assaulted at all and simply wakes up the next morning and goes about her day as if nothing had ever happened. The only effect of this experience in Kelly’s life is that she wants to sign up for self defense classes in the future, which is mentioned maybe twice and then dropped. When I first read this part of the book, I began questioning whether Rouda simply became bored with her story and instead of walking away from it for a few days to clear her head and pick it back up with fresh eyes and new ideas, she opted to write something tense and give Kelly just another problem to deal with, but never took on the responsibility that came with writing about this issue.
Rouda then proceeded to do the very same thing with anorexia, casting aside every ounce of responsibility that comes with writing about the disease and condensing it into an issue that she ends up glorifying.
While taking care of Melanie for the summer and attempting get her to start eating healthier, Kelly enlists the help of Beth, an old friend from college whom Kelly and other friends had ostracized due Beth’s own anorexia. Turns out that this woman is now healthy, happy, married with a new baby, and has a passion for helping anorexic teens. To be fair, Beth is written moderately realistic, but Kelly herself is incredibly weight obsessed and towards the end of the novel, two passages left me feeling absolutely sick.
“Afterward as we cuddled, Patrick complimented me on losing weight. I told him that having an anorexic around had prompted me to think about eating healthier through watching portion sizes and writing things down.”
“I did a little dance in front of my full-length mirror and thought again about permanently adopting Mel and inviting Beth and her family to come live with us. I need to keep the people on the road to healthy eating around me. This could be way better than Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. I could save money and spend it on clothes.”
Yeah, because anorexia is the basis of healthy eating.
Rouda’s novel is straightforward women’s fiction. That is the main reason why I was interested in reading it. I’m a fan of women’s fiction and I feel strongly about supporting female authors. Most of my favorite books are from the minds of astounding, strong women and I know the diligence and perseverance it took in order for those women to be heard and ultimately respected for their work. I think that because I feel so strongly about supporting female authors and doing my part to make sure that women’s fiction is not seen as irrelevant since a good number of publishers have been scaling back on the amount of women’s fiction that they will publish due to it not being seen as a viable market, that I was ultimately let down by Kaira Rouda in a big, big way.
Rouda attempts to make Kelly Johnson into a humorous and relateable character. While many women can identify with feeling restless in their lives and absolutely needing some or even all aspects of their lives to change in extreme ways, Kelly herself is barely relateable to most any woman not belonging to the upper-middle class lifestyle. I found myself rolling my eyes at Kelly’s actions quite frequently, from her mid-day shopping trip to a designer shop to her $295 “emergency blonding appointment.” A lot of the problem areas residing in Here, Home, Hope could have been avoided if it were looked at with a lens of reality and went through a few more drafts of editing while questioning her own ability to write and follow through with extremely important social issues.
I received a digital copy of “Here, Home, Hope” for review as part of a blog campaign through One2One Network. No other compensation was received, and opinions are my own.