The Life You Longed For by Maribeth Fischer

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The Life You Longed For by Maribeth Fischer

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Grace's life is perfect...apart from the fact that her 3-year-old is dying, the love of her life has resurfaced from 20 years back...and then she's accused of Munchauasen's by Proxy. A powerful story of the meaning of love and faith, trust and betrayal...loss, grief, protection and fear. This book will make you question everything.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: September 2007
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
ISBN: 978-0743293280

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Stories can move you in unexpected ways... they can make you smile, or be sad, inspire you or worry you about the way the world turns and what that does to those of us who struggle to hold on. Very occasionally, they can grab you by the throat and force you to stop and think. To question all of your beliefs about what is right, and wrong... about what is even real... and can we, ever, have a hope of knowing.

Grace is one of the blessed. She is intelligent, with a masters degree in epidemiology, and the enquiring mind of a scientist that all of her three children appear to have inherited. Her husband is still handsome, her children are happy in their boisterous rivalry. Her extended family are close about her. They are settled and affluent.

Except that her Goose, her youngest, her baby Jack is three years old and has already survived longer than any of the doctors predicted. Any of the doctors. And there have been many of them. Many - because she continued to search for someone who could help whenever she was told that there was nothing that could be done. It took time, persistence and her ability - her medical training - to get the family to the point where Jack even got a diagnosis.

Mitochondrial disease. Rare and unpredictable... it is (as the name implies) inherited from the mother... there is no cure, no treatment other than palliative care and sometimes-painful interventions... the prognosis is bleak. A few years... best-case scenario: put the child through the high-trauma high-risk of a heart transplant and he might make it to eight years old.

This Grace knows... because she's done the research. She's done the research because she can; she can understand the papers she reads in medical journals... but mostly she's done it because she had to, because she's his mother. And he cannot be allowed to die.

Not when there's still hope.

While he's alive, alive and still able to laugh and ask why, why, why... while he can still pick up bad habits from his brother and fight with his sister... maybe, maybe there'll be a breakthrough... they happen all the time - there's always a first time...

So she fights. And her husband fights with her... secure in the rightness of this family he's built. And the other children, 13 year-old Max and 6-year-old Erin love their little brother beyond belief even if, with the compartmentalised thoughts of children they occasionally hate their parents because he gets all the love, all the attention.

Then in a quirk of fate - for Fate as Fisher will show us is not an inescapable heavy and ponderous inevitability, but a skipping feather-light collection of quirks, single choices or random selections out of thousands, millions, that change everything - in such a quirk, a school project, a random choice of subject, she finds herself back in the company of her first abandoned love.

Possibilities, lost possibilities regained, the world is alive again... which for a mother spending so much time focussed on avoiding, or evading, impending death is a desperate need. Not necessarily, however, one worth risking everything else for.

The Life You Longed For starts with an affair. The rekindling of a 20-year-old abandoned love... abandoned on one side, sustained unrequited on the other.

Love is what this entire book is about.

Love in all its guises. Passionate, requited and not, enduring, the love that first rocks our world when we've scarcely learned how to spell the word, and that which gets us through our deepest nightmares. The love of a man for a woman. A woman for a child. The love all of us have for the vulnerable among us. Protective, caring, hurtful.

An affair might be the last thing that Grace needs, with her youngest child fighting for his life... but worse is to come. Munchausens' By Proxy. The allegation surfaces almost by accident... and lives seeming to trundle safely, if insecurely, onwards are thrown off the rails and into maelstrom.

"Powerful" is one of those much over-used words. In particular it is thrashed in descriptions of painful biographies where the shock is in the reality of the story, but there is nothing particularly 'powerful' about the simple telling of it. Courage, possibly; a need for justice or retribution; or merely a manipulation of circumstance. There may be (for some) a re-taking of power from their former abusers in the exposition - and I won't gainsay their right to do that - but to call the resultant books 'powerful' on that score alone is to undermine the truly powerful writing of works of fiction... which do not merely elicit sympathy or hand-wringing horror, but which twist your allegiances, question your judgements again, and again, drag your emotions into the argument and then simply turn at you and say: "WELL?"

This is what Fischer has achieved.

From the point of the accusation onwards I read the remainder of Grace's tale with her standing there at my shoulder... yelling that "but you believe me don't you? Well?"

So it becomes a story of belief and betrayal. And also one about fear. All of our laws are about fear... about the desire to protect us and particularly our vulnerable, from the threats we perceive around us. But how do we perceive those threats, how do we measure them and what if we're wrong and they really do not exist at all?

Dare we think that? Could it be that witch-hunts continue under other guises?

Or is it possibly true that although we stopped burning witches... it doesn't mean that they aren't still with us?

And of course, ultimately, it must become a story about loss and about grief, and about how in the midst of that we still strive for joy, for slivers of happiness - however guilt-ridden we may feel. I've always had a problem with "and the pursuit of happiness" as one of the inalienable rights, but maybe the writers of the constitution were wiser than I am.

Powerful, then, is the right word. The Life You Longed For does not give you space to breath. From the very first paragraphs you are asked to question to self-righteousness, your morals, your assumptions.

To make the story hold, Fischer drips in the science... wrapped in the sugar of pure poetry she expounds upon the harsh realities of the universe and in particular the very real nature of mitochondrial disease (just one of the horrors that kill children every day)... in passing she asks us to care about the loss of a single species of bird (any one of them, for they too pass out of existence day by day).

Just when you can't take any more sustained emotion, she takes you home to the kids, who behave like kids and make you smile... and then because you're smiling, make you catch your breath again.

Her take on the law I can only assume to be faultless - because - well, to be honest, because if that is wrong, the whole premise collapses... and that cannot be so. That, you see, is the final strand of the work. The law. How we frame it and why... and how we apply it and why.

The answer obviously circles back into that question of fear: the fear of getting it wrong. What Fischer asks us to consider is that maybe there is more than one way of getting it wrong?


I suspect that I might subconsciously categorise the people I interact with on the books front as "intellectual readers" and "emotional readers". This is nothing to do with how intelligently or otherwise they select their reading material, or even how much (emotionally or intellectually) they eventually take from it. It is about 'first response'... whether they stand back from the work or plunge into it... whether they need to understand it before they can respond to it, or whether the instinctive weeping or laughing response is what leads them to understand.

In this particular case it matters not one jot. You should still read this book.

In the quest to understand other questionable things we do to and for our children try The Battle for Christabel.

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D. Livermore said:

It has been so long since I read a book I could get lost in; where I could live in the pages without a realization stopping me: "oh, the author repeats names in dialogue too often" - "the author keeps switching POV's within a scene" - that is, a book without glaring flaws in the mechanics of writing. It amazes me that people put up with so much drivel and even 'critics' praise them. But I am glad I picked up Maribeth Fischer's novel "the Life You Longed For" and glad the theme intrigued me. I'm halfway through and not once has my reading momentum been slowed by errors. It is a wonderfully written book, with a great, slowly winding plot that draws me in. Plus it makes me think a lot about the bigger issues in life. If my momentum is slowed at all, it is to jot down my own ideas that hers inspire. Kudos, Maribeth, you are the best I have read since Dennis LaHane's Mystic River. I'm a medical interpreter and I plan to encourage my colleagues at the Children's Hospital to read it as well.