Set in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, “Is This Tomorrow,’’ takes place when Ike was president, moms stayed home, divorce was outside the pale, and the shadow of Communism threatened the “father-knows-best” tranquillity of the 1950s.
Thirty-something Ava Lark is a misfit in the blue collar Brookstone Family Homes neighborhood: She’s divorced, she’s Jewish, she works at a plumbing company, she dates, and she lives in a run-down ranch style house, the only rental in the area. She’s doing her best to raise her sensitive pre-teen son Lewis, who has never gotten over his father’s departure. Ava’s goals are simple: work full time at a job with benefits, help her son get to college as a way out of the day-to-day struggle to make ends meet, buy the house she’s renting, find someone to marry.
As had happened in her own growing-up years, her son is an outsider, bullied by the kids at school. They torment him for being Jewish, his lack of a dad, and his sexy mom, who is so different from their own mothers. Leavitt’s descriptions of the kids’ malevolence have the ring of authenticity. In time, Lewis meets Jimmy Rearson, the only other fatherless kid in the neighborhood. They hang out together and plan road trips to escape their narrow lives in Waltham. Jimmy’s sister Rose, a year older than the boys, becomes the third “Mouseketeer,” and the trio becomes inseparable.
Then one ordinary day, their lives and those of everyone else in the neighborhood are shattered when Jimmy disappears, marking the death of their innocence. After several terrible months of futile searches for Jimmy, his distraught mother moves with Rose to Pittsburgh to live with a relative, while Lewis quietly falls apart.
Part II of the novel takes place seven years later, after Lewis leaves home at 18. He’s working as a nurse’s aide in Madison, Wis. A misfit still, he has never stopped grieving the loss of his best friend, and of Rose, who never wrote him, though she’d promised she would. And he is still aggrieved by his father’s continued absence in his life. Occasionally he returns to Waltham to visit his mother, whose prospects are looking up since she taught herself to bake pies, which she sells at a local restaurant. She is now working full time at the plumbing company, but still smarts over Jake, the saxophone player she’d fallen hard for around the time Jimmy went missing. Rose is now a teacher in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she’s still seeking leads in her brother’s disappearance.
Leavitt smoothly braids the plot skeins of this, her 10th novel, and just as smoothly moves in and out of her main characters’ points of view. We are privy to the hurts and disappointments of Ava, Lewis, and Rose. As Lewis tells himself, “how weird it was that when people left, the world didn’t come spilling in to fill up the hole where they had been, the empty space just stayed there.”
This is a wise novel about the pain of loss. Leavitt’s isn’t a page-turner in the usual sense (belying the cover blurbs), but it’s a novel that pulls you in and makes you root for an ostracized mother and her son, feel the inconsolable grief of a mother whose child has vanished, and a sister who never ceases to look for her brother. There are a few red herrings and some unlikely coincidences in unraveling the mystery of Jimmy’s disappearance, but overall, this is an eminently satisfying read. Leavitt provides no easy answers about how we can compensate for loss, but she engages our hearts.Kathryn Lang is former senior editor at SMU Press in Dallas.