Sunday, December 2, 2012

Book Review: On the Verge

By Jami Deise

“For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” Most of us will say those words at least once, and some of us will say them a few more. But how often do we stop and think about what those words really mean; what we’re promising to do? In Karen Lenfestey’s novel, On the Verge, her characters are forced to confront exactly what five of those words mean – in sickness and in health – in the everyday lives of their relationships.

The novel centers around interior designer Val, single mom to seven-year-old Chip, who has just married Nathan. With a wild past and Chip’s father providing no support, Val chose Nathan due to his steady, reliable presence. She wanted someone she could count on. But just days after the wedding, Nathan falls and hits his head. When he emerges from his coma weeks later, he’s not the same person. His brain damage has altered his personality, making him impulsive and unreliable. His actions put the very foundation of Val’s life in jeopardy. Despite her promise, how can Val stay married to a man who is so unlike the one she fell in love with?

Val’s story is augmented by her friend and co-worker Joely’s dilemma. Also a single mother to six-year-old Anna, Joely is still involved with Anna’s father, Jake. Although they come from separate worlds – Jake is upper class with a time-consuming job – Jake wants to marry Joely. But Joely hesitates. She has lupus – an incurable disease that could leave her crippled and unable to care for herself. And Jake just doesn’t seem like the care-taking type. As Val deals with the repercussions of Nathan’s injury, Joely urges her friend to remember her vows – perhaps seeing herself in Nathan’s shoes.

With characters who constantly second-guess themselves, On the Verge invites readers to second-guess the characters as well. Does Val have an obligation to stay married to a brain-damaged man, a man who sometimes seems more like a child than an adult? Her dilemma reminded me of the Harrison Ford movie, Regarding Henry, which also featured a woman married to a man who develops brain damage and a child-like outlook after being shot. Lenfestey’s portrayal of a brain-damaged character – his impulsive behavior, his mood swings and outbursts – is very realistic. The book seems well-researched without lecturing.

On the Verge is an engaging, well-paced read. I did have a few minor quibbles – the tone is inconsistent in some places (the beginning reads like a set-up for an abusive husband/stepfather tale); some of the writing is simplistic; point-of-view decisions are arbitrary; a minor plotline does not fit in with the rest of the book. But overall, Lenfestey sticks well to her subject – this is what “in sickness and in health” looks like.

Most readers know that the stories in the books they read will not happen to them. But this is not the case for readers of On the Verge. It’s a chilling reminder that life can change in an instant – the instant it takes to slip on the stairs.

Thanks to Karen for the book in exchange for an honest review. She's currently having a giveaway of What Happiness Looks Like at her website. (Ends December 25th.)

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