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In ‘With or Without You,’ a character wakes from a coma with new gifts

David Wilson For The Boston Globe

In “With or Without You,” her 11th book, Caroline Leavitt revisits the medical mysteries of coma — a subject also at the heart of an earlier novel, “Coming Back to Me.” It’s no mystery why: Leavitt herself spent three and a half weeks in a medically-induced coma 20 years ago, and she’s not done thinking about it.

It was just after giving birth to her son, Leavitt recalled, when a sudden blood disorder led to the medical intervention. “When I woke from the coma, my mind was completely blank,” she said. “It was like being in a TV show — there were doctors gathered around my bed asking what day it was, do you know who you are?”


Traumatized by the experience, Leavitt talked to a therapist who suggested she write about it. But even after “Coming Back to Me” was published, she said, “I still had all these problems and triggers. I went to another therapist, who told me, ‘you wrote the wrong book.’” So Leavitt took on coma again, this time in a tale of Stella, a woman who awakes from a coma with a sudden new talent — she can paint portraits that are almost psychic in their ability to reveal their subjects’ inner lives.

Leavitt’s research for the novel led her to investigate neuropsychology and painting and music. (Stella’s partner is a musician whose dreams of success never quite panned out.) “When I was done with the book, I felt a lot better,” she said. And so do her characters. “I had no idea what the ending was really going to be until I got three quarters of the way through,” she said. “I just wanted these people to end up in a place where they realized, OK, this isn’t what I expected my life to be, but it’s OK. I just wanted to bump them up to the next level of life.”


Leavitt will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at a virtual event hosted by Print: A Bookstore, of Portland, Maine. Visit for more details.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at