Dr. Julie Walker is in a tough situation. She needs to get to the VA hospital where her sister Heather has gone into labor. The city is erupting in violence, as California (the Golden State) decides whether it will be seceding from the United States. There is also a hostage situation at the VA hospital. Dr. Walker’s ex-lover, depressed war veteran Dennis, nursing his resentment towards Julie has holed up with a gun, 2 nurses Betty and Eleanor, and resident Rajiv, threatening fatalities unless Julie does what he says.
The novel’s story unfolds flashback-fashion as Julie attempts to talk Dennis out of the hostage situation by recounting her life’s memories on his demand. It all comes out then : her poverty-ridden childhood and the desire to get away from it, her attachments and subsequent marriage to upbeat, handsome radio jockey Tom, and her ties to her mother and sister, which ultimately cost her the most important thing in her life. As she speaks to Dennis, she lays it out bare: she is a 40 something woman, an automaton of a doctor who goes out on her job mechanically, with a looming divorce, an estranged sister, and very little happiness in life. Life looks bleak.
I haven’t read Michelle Richmond before but going by this book she is indeed the author to look out for. This book recounts events of just a single day. The storyline tracks backward: we are in the thick of it right at the beginning, and as the book progresses we get filled in on the who, the what and the why. The “filling-out”, so to speak, is done very skillfully. Richmond seamlessly segue-ways from the present day to long-forgotten, festering memories. It seems natural, this detailed introspection, and we are with Julie as she traverses the life she has lived. Along the way we get to know her, and we feel for her as Richmond movingly details out the play-by-play of Julie’s almost accidentally happy days. The fact that we know that heartbreak is coming makes it all the more poignant when Julie faces irrecoverable loss.
This book is told from an empathetic view-point, and Julie and her life seem very close at hand, like I could bump into her around a random corner. Even the negative characters here aren’t just evil, but flecked with human imperfections, the kind all of us have. I have to credit Richmond’s skill with words that she got me heavily invested in Julie’s life and future; I wished her happiness and peace and an escape from the grievous heartbreak.
This beautifully written book gives me hope, in more ways than one. Highly recommended.