The landmark movie Kramer vs. Kramer came out during Christmas 1979, when I was 12. (I can’t imagine today’s 12-year-olds being interested in family dramas, but perhaps we were more sophisticated back then, or there were just fewer films to choose from.) If you’re not familiar with the film, Meryl Streep abandons her husband (Dustin Hoffman) and son, then returns a year or so later wanting custody. She gets it, but ends up giving the boy back to Hoffman because she was too …. Well, I don’t really remember that part. I do remember sitting in the movie theatre and wondering why a judge would give a child back to a parent who’d abandoned him. In the 1970s, giving custody to a father only happened if the mother could be proven unfit – and the bar for that was very high.
This is the foundation on which author James Whitfield Thomson, in his amazing debut novel, chooses to build. In the 1970s, solid good-guy Matt falls in love with flighty, self-centered Lucy. They marry and have two children, but their mismatch in personalities proves too much to overcome. Convinced that Lucy is an unfit mother – but unable to find a judge or lawyer who’ll agree – how far will Matt go to keep his children safe?
Thomson tells the story from both Matt and Lucy’s points of view. The first part of the book is richly detailed and the pacing relatively slow, as we get to know both characters and watch them fall in love – despite, in Lucy’s case, her inability to get over bad boy ex Griffin. After the children are born and the marriage starts to crack, the tension ratchets up and the pacing quickens as we get closer and closer to the inevitable tragedy.
I believe Thomson’s decision to tell the story from both viewpoints was intended to keep either character from becoming hero or villain. But personally, I saw Lucy as the villain right from the start. Perhaps it’s because Thomson, whose biography mentions he served in Vietnam, was an adult during the time period he writes about, and therefore Lucy’s pot and cigarette smoking and daily drinking were much more accepted behaviors for parents in that era. But I’m a helicopter parent; my son was born the year Dr. Sears’ baby book came out, and we were all told to sleep with our children, breastfeed on demand and wear the baby on a sling. Truthfully, I hated Lucy, and I didn’t think a woman who allowed her alcoholic mother to drive her children around when she was drunk was someone who deserved to retain custody of them. So, for me, Thomson’s decision to show both points of view backfired – the more I got to know Lucy, the more I disliked her.
Lies You Wanted to Hear is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it. It’s like a more domestic version of Gone Girl; the different time periods notwithstanding. I’d be especially interested in hearing whether other readers share my reaction toward Matt and Lucy, and how that breaks down according to gender and age. Will readers who became parents in the 1970s be sympathetic toward Lucy than those who became parents in the 1990s or later? Check in after you read the book and let us know.
Thanks to Sourcebooks for the book in exchange for an honest review.
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