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The Gap Year, by Sarah Bird.

March 23, 2015

The Gap Year, by Sarah Bird.  Gallery Books (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 301 pages.

3 stars

A sharp, disturbing novel about the gap between a single mother and her adolescent daughter.

Cam and her daughter Aubrey live in suburbia because of the excellent reputation of its school system. Martin, their husband/father, left them sixteen years ago when Aubrey was two.  Since then they stayed near the good schools.  Cam has struggled alone to be the best mother possible, but neither she nor her daughter have ever fit in.  All they had was each other, and when Aubrey enters her senior year their former closeness dissolves.  A crisis develops to reshapes both their lives.

Accomplished author Sarah Bird tells the story of how the pair grew apart by letting each tell her half of the story in alternating chapters. Cam tells what is happening in the present as the date for Aubrey to leave for college approaches, frequently airing her memories of having a happy, loving little girl and the intensity of the involvement she wants in her daughter’s life. Aubrey tells of the events of her senior year, events that she does not share with her mother. Falling in love with a football hero and contact with her long-absent father sharpen her resentment of her mother’s overbearing efforts to keep her close. The structure works, partly because of Bird’s skill and partly because the same emotional issues between mother and daughter appear.

At first I was impressed with Bird’s ability to give voice to both of the mother and the daughter without taking sides. But slowly I became more irritated by Cam and her endless guilt trips and daydreaming about the past. She is so invested in her daughter that she fails to see what was going to happen. As I read I felt a smug self-righteousness about how I had not allowed myself to engage in such smoldering intensity with my own daughters. In the ugly game of who is the best mother, I had won. Soon I was totally on Aubrey’s side against yet another inadequate, oppressive mother.   Then the father/husband, absent from the first half of the book, enters. He isn’t quite a knight on a white horse, but close enough to make me uncomfortable.  He cannot reverse the situation of the mother and daughter, but he seems able to distract Cam from being so obsessive about Aubrey.  I suppose there is nothing wrong with a book about a man helping a woman no longer able to handle her life, but the ending seems trite and worn-out.  And it ignores the fact that mothers and daughters have separation problems whether or not there is a husband/father present; is a situation that deserves more attention in literature that adequately treats mother and daughter equally and explores their changing relationship with complexity.

Sara Bird does many things very well. I am not surprised that the books she writes are popular. Her characters are sharp and funny, and her narrative has enough tension and suspense to make readers keep going. I particularly liked Tyler, Aubrey’s boyfriend, who has his own surprising story. I could have done without so many references to celebrities I didn’t recognize, but my deeper problem was the plot-line that I have heard too many times before.

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