If you read only one book this summer, make sure it’s Douglas Kennedy’s Leaving the World. This riveting, poignant page-turner explores how our childhoods affect the choices we make in life, how we make sense of life when tragedy strikes and the randomness of destiny. Kennedy dexterously combines a fast-paced plot with complex characters, provocative themes and difficult moral questions about family, love, loss, betrayal and the impact of the past upon the future.
Jane Howard, the protagonist and narrator, is looking back on her life as the story begins, reflecting on her 13th birthday—a day that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Her parents are vehemently arguing at a Manhattan restaurant, drawing attention to themselves. When they finally pause, Jane tells her father that she’s never getting married and never having children. To her mother’s dismay, she adds, “No one is really happy.” When Jane wakes up the next day, her father is gone.
So begins the downward trajectory of Jane’s life. Her mother blames her daughter for her lot in life. Her father abandons and exploits her. Jane finds temporary happiness in a clandestine, adulterous affair with her Ph.D. mentor that ends tragically. Then she falls in love with Theo, who is erratic, unfaithful and exploitative, just like her father. A child results from their relationship—the one happy consequence of an otherwise disastrous affair.
But when a random accident kills her beloved daughter, Jane leaves her world, fleeing her job, home and friends for a small town in Northwest Canada where no one knows her. Only the disappearance of a young girl gradually draws Jane back into life.
Kennedy explores grief and tragedy with unrelenting intensity, and while the novel’s ending is not quite a happy one, it is nonetheless satisfying. There are no simplistic answers to life’s random tragedies; while Jane temporarily leaves the world, she re-enters it knowing she has no other choice but to do so.
Kennedy has been a staple on international bestseller lists for years, and his books have sold millions of copies worldwide. But Kennedy hasn’t had a U.S. publisher in more than 10 years. Time magazine said, “[Kennedy] may be the most successful American novelist America doesn’t know.” The publication of Leaving the World should no doubt change that.