Rachel Norfleet

Rebecca Coleman’s haunting second novel, Heaven Should Fall, begins innocently enough: Jill Wagner’s otherwise affable and charismatic boyfriend, Cade Olmstead, does not want to introduce her to his family. Still reeling from the death of her own mother, Jill can’t help but feel rejected by this uncharacteristic refusal. But when the young college couple discovers that Jill is pregnant, Cade concedes that their best option is to retreat to the Olmstead family farm.

Once they arrive, Cade’s reasons for keeping Jill away become dismally clear. In place of the domestic togetherness she has been craving she finds a toxic environment choked with long-buried secrets and bitter animosity. Cade’s family tiptoes around the reminders of the past to simply make it through each day—mother Leela, father Eddy, sister Candy and brother Elias are all beyond the reach of Jill’s good intentions.

With her due date looming, Jill takes a special shine to Elias, a combat veteran who’s come home riddled with the horrific memories of his time in Afghanistan. But not even the government Elias pledged his life to can help him, and as he sinks deeper into the cruel depths of post-traumatic stress disorder, Jill notices an unsettling change in Cade’s behavior as well. When an unspeakable tragedy descends upon the family, she fears it will be just enough to push Cade over the edge.

While the Olmsteads’ grim story is told through the separate perspectives of the family members themselves, only the voice of Jill resonates with uncorrupted clarity. The landscape Coleman has created here is strikingly bleak. Instead of bells and whistles, she relies on substance and atmosphere to build her story; her language is subdued, but the words cut deeply. She crafts each character with a love that is genuine and sometimes fearful, pulling helpless readers headlong into their struggles. As the heartbreak spreading through this family rots away to reveal something sinister, it is impossible to turn away.

Rebecca Coleman’s haunting second novel, Heaven Should Fall, begins innocently enough: Jill Wagner’s otherwise affable and charismatic boyfriend, Cade Olmstead, does not want to introduce her to his family. Still reeling from the death of her own mother, Jill can’t help but feel rejected by this uncharacteristic refusal. But when the young college couple discovers […]

Simon Ryrie only lived for 57 hours, but the impact his life has on his family (mother Ricky, father John, siblings Biscuit and Paul) reaches beyond the brief moments of his existence in Leah Hager Cohen’s fourth novel, The Grief of Others. One year later, Ricky, working toward redemption for an infidelity, must now own up to another terrible secret she’s concealed, this one involving her pregnancy with Simon.

As the revelation rips open old wounds, John and Ricky’s wavering relationship threatens to give way, and the Ryrie children sink into their own lonely realities: Young Biscuit plays hooky and cultivates a fascination with funeral rites, while Paul weathers his classmates’ torturous bullying. With anger, shame and confusion now complicating their mourning, the Ryries struggle for normalcy, an effort made all the more difficult when John’s daughter from a previous relationship shows up, pregnant and in need of a place to stay. When the family is forced to confront a grief within her that is too close to their own, the added heartbreak could be the final blow.

Inspired by her own experience with loss, Cohen demonstrates a masterful command of storytelling, instilling a melancholy power and grace in her words and driving an already gripping narrative with a quiet but brutal intensity. Using the viewpoints of each character makes it easy for readers to give the family the acceptance and forgiveness they fight so hard for, even when their actions don’t exactly warrant it.

With this incredibly moving commentary, Cohen has secured a place in the lineup of today’s great writers.

Simon Ryrie only lived for 57 hours, but the impact his life has on his family (mother Ricky, father John, siblings Biscuit and Paul) reaches beyond the brief moments of his existence in Leah Hager Cohen’s fourth novel, The Grief of Others. One year later, Ricky, working toward redemption for an infidelity, must now own […]

It’s hard to resist the allure of a good scandal . . . as long as it’s happening to someone else. But with so much on display thanks to social networking and video-sharing websites, it can be easy for something private to result in public disgrace. In Helen Schulman’s arresting fifth novel, This Beautiful Life, the Bergamot family proves they are no exception to this rule.

When love-struck eighth-grader Daisy sends a homemade, sexually explicit video to 15-year-old Jake Bergamot, his first instinct is to forward it to a friend. As the video is passed around Jake’s classmates, it eventually makes its way outside of the schoolyard and into the hands of the media, elevating it to viral status and turning all blame and outrage toward Jake.

Told from the alternating perspectives of Jake, his mother Liz and his father Richard (while adopted sister, Coco, languishes in the background), the story follows the family as they bumble their way through the aftermath and struggle under the hard scrutiny of the public. As all three shoulder the fallout, they ultimately embrace their own acts of deviance when the reality of what’s at stake for each of them starts to unfold.

Adopting a device similar to the one she used in A Day at the Beach, in which a couple’s deteriorating marriage is brought to light in the face of 9/11, Schulman exposes the fragility of the seemingly happy Bergamots by throwing them to the wolves in their own personal tragedy. The story is peppered with flashbacks, revealing pivotal moments in the family’s history when decisions had to be made without fully realizing the sacrifices that were to come. Much like those moments in the past, the decisions the Bergamots make during this pivotal moment weigh heavily on their happiness, success and fate as a family.  

Supported by an elegant, succinct voice that sometimes lapses into a kind of everyday prose, This Beautiful Life draws readers in with its empathetic portrayal of just how easy it can be to jeopardize everything in mere seconds. By presenting a dilemma anyone can appreciate in today’s digital age and characters who effortlessly stir up recognition—they are brilliantly, excruciatingly and deplorably human—Schulman gives her readers courtside seats to the devastation a scandal can cause, reminding them that while it’s hard to resist the allure of a good scandal, it almost always comes at a high price for someone else.

Rachel Norfleet is a writer and copy editor in Nashville.

It’s hard to resist the allure of a good scandal . . . as long as it’s happening to someone else. But with so much on display thanks to social networking and video-sharing websites, it can be easy for something private to result in public disgrace. In Helen Schulman’s arresting fifth novel, This Beautiful Life, the […]

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