Published by Hyperion
Publication date: September 11th 2012
Those We Love Most begins with one of life’s greatest tragedies- the loss of a young child. James is riding his bike to school as his mother follows with his baby sister in a stroller. He rides out into the street and is killed by a teenage driver. An accident, but one that Lee Woodruff mines to look at the fragile web of relationships, communications and individual responses that follow an unthinkable event. With thoughtful prose, she probes the inner life of two marriages, Maura and Pete Corrigan, James’ parents, and Margaret and Roger Munson, Maura’s parents.
For Maura, the impact is immediate and horrifying. One minute she turns to look down at a text on her phone and the next, her son is gone. Her guilt is compounded by the fact that the text is from her lover. She has no way to release this anguish and inner turmoil. Her mother, Margaret, is the family rock who believes
“I don’t let myself get overwhelmed. Not now. Not at this place in time. I can’t see the point in letting yourself wallow in that kind of grief.”
She takes over Maura’s family, cooking, cleaning, and answering the phone, all while Maura tries to come to terms with what’s left of her life. Her husband, Pete, does his best but finds the most solace in old friends and beer. A marriage that was drifting before the accident quickly begins to come apart. Maura struggles to right herself for the sake of her two young children, if not her marriage, but even as those around her recover she finds she cannot.
No one was exempt. All of us whizzing by one another on a city street or highway, wearing our polite public masks, while the internal scars, the transgressions and sadness of egregious loss, clung to us on the inside like trace elements.
At the same time, Woodruff looks at Margaret and Roger, a couple who have been married for 40 years. Margaret is the stoic and disciplinarian in the dynamic while Roger is the breadwinner and giver of gifts but not time. Maura is their oldest child and everyone has always remarked on her resemblance, in looks and in nature, to her father. At the most unflattering level this is true, for Roger has been carrying on an affair for several years. For him the loss of his oldest grandson intersects with changes at work and confusion about the future. His affair is his way of denying the aging process but when he suffers a stroke at his mistress’ home in Florida (the family lives in Illinois) the complications add almost unbearable weight to an already strained family. For Margaret, confirmation of a relationship she had suspected for some time forces her look outside her carefully constructed persona.
A terrible thing had happened to Roger, but at this precise intersection in time, contemplating both distant memories and the uncertainty of the future, she knew she was standing on the lip between past and future. She had not yet taken a step forward into her new unwritten life.
Parts of the plot in Those We Love Most feel clichéd: young boy is killed by teenage driver while mother isn’t looking, husband turns to drink to cope, man has stroke while at his mistress’ house and mistress has to call wife and tell her. This is material that is a bit worn. But while the subject matter may not be original there is still that human desire to look inside another’s life, to try and understand what are complex issues and emotions. Woodruff works well with that aspect, in that each of her characters is deeply human and in certain lights, each is less than likable, which is risky for an author. Those We Love Most goes there, and opts for reality over fantasy.
There were boundaries, even in the best marriages, and they’d bumped up against them. In the end, the rough patches and the harder things you endured were far more useful and valuable to have survived than the long stretches of calm and peace.