Summer arrived in Northern California uncharacteristically late this year. Normally, the temperature soars past 100 degrees by Memorial Day, and by the time we “ooh” and “aah” over the Fourth of July fireworks display, we have enjoyed a number of days lounging on the beach or by the pool, leisurely reading an engrossing novel… or a few. This year, we didn’t experience our first 100 degree-plus scorcher until June was nearly a memory.
Fortunately, by the time our first really long, hot summer day arrived, I was by the pool reading Claire Cook’s seventh novel, Seven Year Switch, which received well-deserved beach read shout-outs from People, USA Today, and the New York Times. Seven Year Switch marked the first time I read one of Claire Cook’s books, although Must Love Dogs is one of my all-time favorite movies. I enjoyed Seven Year Switch so much that I plan to read (and review) her previous six novels.
Jill Murray’s life hasn’t turned out the way she envisioned and planned it. For the past seven years, she has been raising her daughter, Anastasia, now ten years old, on her own. Her husband, Seth, suddenly abandoned them. To make ends meet, Jill teaches Lunch Around the World cooking classes at the community center and works from home as a telephone operater for her friend Joni’s travel service. “Great Girlfriend Getaways. Feisty and fabulous man-free escapes both close to home and all over the world. When was the last time you got together with your girlfriends?” Jill greets callers in eight-hour stretches while she prepares dinner for Anastasia, drills her on her spelling lesson, and wonders if and when her husband will reappear. Ironically, although Jill regales callers with exciting details about the various available getaway packages, she hasn’t enjoyed any getaways herself. And she doesn’t have any girlfriends to get away with, unless you count Joni or Cynthia, her annoyingly beautiful next-door neighbor.
Jill also provides business consulting services. A new client, Billy Sanders, needs assistance expanding his line of designer bicycle rentals into the Japanese market. For the first time in seven years, Jill allows herself to contemplate more than a casual bicycle ride with her handsome, somewhat eccentric new client.
Naturally, Seth resurfaces just as Jill is pulling her life together and beginning to feel like her old, confident self again.
Jill thought she was leading a perfectly happy life with her husband, Seth, and three-year-old daughter. Railing against the domesticity into which they have settled, Seth can’t understand why Jill doesn’t see that he is suffocatingly unhappy. So Seth simply walks away, leaving Jill financially and emotionally destitute, and fully responsible for raising their daughter.
In response, Jill does what any mother in those circumstances would: She figures out how to survive… step by step, day by day. Not without anxiety. Not without worry. Not without anger and resentment toward the man she loved and she believed loved her, their child, and their life together. And not without subjugating her own needs for the sake of her daughter’s. She doesn’t date, she doesn’t buy nice clothes for or take proper care of herself. She can’t afford to hire someone to perform routine maintenance on the modest house she has managed to purchase in a marginal neighborhood that is on the cusp of becoming trendy.
As the story opens, it is clear that Jill has lived every day of the last seven years on a precipice — waiting for whatever comes next. And she is understandably tired of it. But effecting change in your life is difficult when you have a ten-year-old who is completely dependent upon you — only you.
Cook creates thoroughly believable main characters with whom readers can readily identify. Anastasia, in particular, is appropriately, exasperatingly, charmingly precocious. She is ten going on thirty, as are most girls that age. Concerned about what her friends will think if she lets her mother kiss her good-bye before she gets on the school bus, she longs to fit in with the other kids as she perpetually fusses with her headband and writes with a pink or purple feathery pen. She tests her mother in the ways that only a bright and cheeky ten-year-old can. Bemused, Jill had come to love Anastasia’s “little acts of rebellion. I read them as signs of progress, evidence that she had not only survived, but was finally starting to thrive. She had friends at school. Her grades were good. She loved to read.” And, in Jill’s estimation, “[t]he last thing either of us needed was for Seth to come back into our lives and screw them all up again.” Of course, he does.
Wisely, Cook crafts a convincing portrait of a little girl poised to enter puberty who still longs for and misses her daddy. The story would have been far less satisfying had Anastasia been portrayed as a stereotypically angry, rebellious teenager and Jill the harried mother desperate to communicate with an out-of-control child. Because Anastasia is ten, rather than 16 or 17, Jill’s instinctual desire to protect her just a bit longer is understandable, So Jill’s ethically questionable method of assessing her daughter’s need to have her father back in her life is justifiable and, from the reader’s perspective, forgivable.
What makes Cook’s writing remarkable and elevates Seven Year Switch from just another enjoyable story to a memorable one, is the book’s hilariously authentic cast of supporting players. Like one of my all-time favorite authors, Janet Evanovich, Cook injects her narrative with nuances and details that make the most tangential characters, even if they only appear in the story for a few brief words or paragraphs, come alive in the reader’s mind just as vibrantly as those central to the story. From the opening paragraphs in which Cook describes Jill’s eclectic menagerie of students at the community center through the last few chapters when the reader meets the group of women with whom Jill finally gets away to Costa Rica for a surfing adventure, every character has his/her own unique voice and is expertly positioned to propel the dialogue and plot forward at a crisp clip.
Perhaps most intriguing is Cynthia, Jill’s next-door neighbor. Cynthia wears flirty little tennis outfits, has her hair and nails done regularly, is a some-time interior decorator, and owns a complete set of the “pinkest of pink” power tools that she loans Jill in their silver and pink case resembling a “heftier version of the Barbie briefcase that Anastasia had talked me into buying her a few years ago.” Jill wanted to hate Cynthia because she “oozed entitlement from every well-peeled and dermabraded pore, but I also kind of wanted to be Cynthia. Somehow I thought I’d do a better job of it.” Every woman has at least one friend like Cynthia, whose life isn’t quite as perfect as, at first glance, it appears. Full of puns and a few unfulfilled dreams of her own, it becomes impossible for the reader to hate her, either. By the end of the book, Cynthia becomes uproariously endearing.
The least developed character is Seth, but that does not detract from the story. Rather, the omission keeps the reader’s attention focused on Jill and her metamorphosis. Thankfully, Jill doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to understand why Seth left her and Anastasia, even when he offers a lame explanation. His abrupt departure, reminiscent of Berger’s break-up with Carrie on Sex and the City, and equally sudden reappearance, don’t send Jill into prolonged hand-wringing, “where-did-I-fail-you?” or “how-did-I-miss-the-signs?” fits of soul-searching. The truth is that Seth is a coward and Jill is entitled to be unremorsefully furious with him for the rest of her life. But Jill is determined to be the best mother she can be and when Seth wanders back into their lives, hoping to pick up where they left off seven years before, Jill continues to elevate her daughter’s needs over her own. Coward or not, Seth is Anastasia’s father, after all.
Jill informs Anastasis that her father has returned, and the little girl demands to speak with him immediately. Jill relates that “[i]f I’d had to take a test to define the emotions I was feeling, I would have failed miserably.” Any parent who has, purely for the sake of their child, endured holidays, birthdays, and other occasions in the company of an ex-spouse or partner when they would rather have omitted his/her from the guest list can readily relate to Jill’s frustration and jealousy when Anastasia becomes completely enchanted with the parent who has been inexcusably absent from her life. But for her daughter’s sake, Jill faces the moment she has dreaded for seven years: Anastasia’s reunion with her father.
I tiptoed into the living room. Anastasia was sitting on the couch, flipping through the album of photos of Seth.
“Hey,” I whispered. “How did it go?”
She smiled up at me. “We’re having a welcome home party. I’m going to make the decorations, and Dad’s going to bring the presents. What do you want to do?”
I looked at her. I twisted my mouth into a smile.
Scream, I thought. While the daughter and the father plan their reunion, what the mother wants to do is scream.
It is said that every seven years one becomes a completely new person. The dramatic tension in Cook’s story emanates from Jill’s being forced to decide if she wants to revert to the person she was seven years ago when her world was turned upside down by Seth’s departure, or reinvent herself. With Seth’s return, things cannot remain as they have been for the past seven years as she and Anastasia found their way together. Jill loved Seth but she has to decide if she still loves him or can love him again, despite what he did. Now that he has been reintroduced to Anastasia, he will remain a part of both of their lives. And there is Billy, with whom Jill has tentatively embarked upon a refreshing new relationship. A surprising twist causes her to question whether she can continue her professional or personal relationship with Billy.
Jill is the “everywoman” in this piece. Every parent who reads Seven Year Switch better buckle up before reading the first page because he/she is going on an emotional roller coaster ride along with Jill. It is impossible not to empathize with Jill’s heartbreak at seeing her daughter long for her absent father and, when he resurfaces, her desire to shield Anastasia as she thrusts herself headlong into a renewed relationship with him. (What if he hurts them again?) It is easy to appreciate why Jill, humiliated and embarrassed, isolated herself from her friends, and threw her full energy and attention into raising her daughter after being rejected so emphatically and cruelly by an outwardly loving husband. And every woman who has girlfriends upon whom she relies for companionship, honesty, and unconditional support will rejoice when Jill finally acknowledges that she deserves her own Great Girlfriend Getaway. Every great book boasts at least one character with whom the readers identify and for whom they cheer. In Seven Year Switch, that character is Jill.
Seven Year Switch is ultimately an exploration of what it means to be selfless and forgiving, while safeguarding one’s own emotional boundaries, along with those of the people who depend upon us for care and protection. Few people will find themselves in a situation as unusual as having a spouse return after going missing for seven years, but readers will relate to Jill’s determination to do what is best for her daughter, as well as the morass of unresolved feelings Jill must sort through as she struggles to discern what comes next in her life – and her child’s. The pages of Seven Year Switch flip quickly, but its theme and characters resonate long after the book has been put back into the beach tote with the sunscreen, sunflower seeds, and extra towels while the reader contemplates the incoming tide. It is, as Allison Winn Scotch, author of The One That I Want observed, “a perfect beach read,” sure to become a summertime classic!
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