Everyone has stories of books that no matter how great they are or how good your intentions, never seem to get read. Books you found or were given that have intriguing jackets or descriptions, appealing plots that at one time caught your imagination but still they sit on your shelf, staring at you like a dog in a shelter silently begging to be picked up. And you ignore them. But their need to be read is so intense you cannot let them go, you know you will have to pick them at some point. I have a book that was so insistent in its merit that even though I never read it I was always too afraid to admit I would not and so kept it with me for years.
The book is Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (author of Life After Life). I have had a hardcover copy on my shelf since right after it was published. I received it from the publisher as part of a “big mouth” mailing, which is when publishers send other people in the industry copies of their book in hopes that their competitors will 1) be jealous they didn’t publish the book and 2) read it, love it, and spread the news about it’s greatness to their colleagues and friends. There is nothing more potent than someone who loves working with books loving a book published by another house.
Since receiving my copy I have moved offices three times. Each move brought a massive purge of books but never this one. This book, which my mother periodically asked if I had read yet, got sent to each new office where it went back on the highest shelf possible so when it looked down at me with reproach I could turn away.
Recently I needed to once again prune my bookshelves. When I pulled this one down, thinking it was finally time to let it go, a letter fell out. It was from the editor, written in 2004 it included all the praise the book had received, news that it had already gone into its 6th printing and a gentle plea for me to read it. I felt like a heel. How could I, in good conscience, have ignored such a request and such a book for almost 10 years? I took it home that night. And what I thought when I finally cracked the spine was, “You idiot, why did you wait so long?” In my defense, the hardcover cover made me think it was a generational drama, which are not always my favorites. There is family drama for sure but not the kind the jacket led me to expect.
A beautiful looping story of three families struggling to get to the bottom of life-shattering mysteries that have shaded and shaped them for years and the one detective they each hire, who is struggling to find answers to the mystery of his own life, this story is mesmerizing and un-put-downable. Atkinson is such a sublime writer that you are sucked in as much by her beautiful sentences as you are by her plot. Her characters are so real and face overwhelming situations with such aplomb that it is hard to choose your favorite: two middle-aged women want to know what happened to their youngest sister who disappeared from their backyard when she was three; a young mother isolated and overwhelmed struggles with an unhappy baby and domineering husband; and a father tries to make sense of an act of violence that robbed him of his happiness. She spins all their stories into a tight and twisty tale that keeps you guessing as you keep reading. A wonderful book. Don’t wait as long as I did to read it.