Author Jacquelyn Mitchard offers an intriguing study of a quintessential American family in her latest novel, The Breakdown Lane. Julianne Gillis, upper-crust daughter of a famed New York author, works as an advice columnist for the Sheboygan, Wisconsin, newspaper. She and her husband Leo Steiner, an attorney, are the parents of teenagers Gabe and Caro and toddler Rory. Julianne is happy with her life, until her husband's midlife crisis strikes. As Leo embraces all things organic and eschews materialism, he imposes his values on his family. Much to the dismay of his children, Leo insists that they forgo modern-day electronics, limiting television and computer use. The real clincher is even harder to bear Leo decides to take a sabbatical not only from his job, but from his family, as he searches for his true sense of self at an upstate New York hippie commune.
While the departure of a spouse often results in irreparable harm to the fractured family, Leo's abandonment is especially damaging, as Julianne is diagnosed with MS shortly after he disappears. Single parenthood is difficult enough, but Julianne must tame her rebellious teens and care for young Rory while struggling with MS and the side effects of the potent medications used to control it. Much of the novel is narrated by Gabe, delving into his innermost thoughts as he copes with anger at his father's abandonment and his mother's debilitating illness. On the cusp of manhood, Gabe details his romance with a young visiting Thai student and his battle with a learning disability. Julianne takes a turn as well, complete with clips of her column chronicling her advice to the lovelorn. Interestingly, her own life is a study of disillusion with the institution of marriage and family bonding. Mitchard smoothly moves the story forward, emphasizing the complexities underlying familial relationships in this thought-provoking, introspective novel. Sheri Melnick writes from Enola, Pennsylvania.