Running Away from To-Do Lists

In her first novel for adults, bestselling young-adult novelist Gayle Forman cuts to the heart of working moms’ struggles.   

by Sandee Brawarsky

Gayle Forman shrugs off the distinctions between writing for young adults and writing for adults.

“It’s the same process, draft by draft, excavating an emotional truth,” says the bestselling author of I Was Here, Just One Day, and other novels including If I Stay, which was made into a major motion picture. She has just published her first volume of fiction for adults, Leave Me (Algonquin Books).

“I write about young people, but I don’t write young stories,” she says, of her earlier books. In Leave Me, she writes for the first time about the challenges of marriage.

Maribeth Klein is one of those people who seems to have it all—family life with twins in Manhattan’s Tribeca, an interesting job at a magazine, a loving husband—but she seems to have it all on her shoulders. It’s an uneasy balance that needs to be constantly tended and rearranged—and it seems like one more thing might make everything topple. She’s so busy with getting her kids off to pre-school and organizing their play dates and speech therapy appointments, while meeting her deadlines at work, that she doesn’t realize that the odd and painful sensations in her chest are a heart attack. At 44, she ends up having emergency bypass surgery.

For a brief time in the hospital, she can’t get to her “to do” list. As Forman writes, “She felt almost tearfully grateful to be off the hook, and residually angry because she was always on the hook.”

She’s discharged before she’s remotely ready, and soon she’s in charge again, once more on the hook. Instead of getting the help she needs to heal, she’s needed to help her kids, husband, mother and friends.

Some weeks later, Maribeth lives out what for many women is a fantasy: She leaves. Forman says that the idea of running away from it all is a universal fantasy among the mothers she knows. One fantasizes about just staying on the train, past her stop, and another considers driving right past her exit. It’s not just the running away, but it’s about going to some place of privacy, the proverbial room of one’s own, without schedules and pick-ups and meals to be prepared. Among other things, Maribeth seeks out her birth mother.

photo by Stomping Ground Photo

photo by Stomping Ground Photo

“I wanted to talk about it, to remove some of the shame. To be brutally honest,” Forman says. “You can love your children and your family. You can be grateful for the riches bestowed upon you. And you can still have days that you want to leave altogether.”
In person, Forman is warm, energetic, thoughtful and very open about her own experience as a wife and mother of two daughters, the younger adopted from Ethiopia.

“Demographically, Maribeth and I are the same. It felt like I was shining a spotlight on myself. That’s less obvious when I’m writing about 20-year olds.”

As she does in her books for young people, Forman writes about intimate issues that matter to her characters, in a strong but never preachy voice. In previous books, she has focused on grief, suicide, romance and family struggles. For Forman, the emotional directness of teens is appealing, and she appreciates that they don’t necessarily erect walls around themselves the way many adults do. She knows the young adult audience well, dating back to the beginnings of her media career, when she worked at Seventeen magazine.

Throughout Leave Me, Forman is very good at capturing the nuances of how people speak and what they say (and what they leave unsaid). One part of the story unfolds through an email exchange.

“I love writing dialogue,” she says. “It’s my favorite part. I wrote about having kids for the first time and it was delightful. I learned to write dialogue from being a journalist and spending a lot of time listening to people talk. I can hear the characters really clearly.” Long after she finishes her books, she admits, she still hears the voices of her characters in her head, very clearly.

Readers will be nodding at how Forman just gets it right—the yearnings, the complicated love, the small disappointments, the exhaustion, the unrecognized frustrations, the unbalanced balance of gender roles, how the arguments that couples have about laundry are really about something else.  

Forman first began thinking about this story several years ago when she was away with her family visiting friends for a weekend, and she began worrying that the pains in her chest were related to her heart (indeed, her mother had quadruple bypass at 48). Trying to hide her pain from the others, she found herself worrying about who would take care of the kids should anything happen to her. And, not unrelated, who would take care of her? Fortunately, her heart was fine, and she put the idea aside, wrote two young adult novels, and then she began thinking again of the heart idea, about the working mother too busy with responsibilities at home and at work, and worrying about everything else in between, to notice that she was having a heart attack.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is forgiveness, a timely one for the upcoming High Holiday season. In fact, Forman says that every one of her book is in some way about forgiveness.

“Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday. What a great thing to have a period of time to contemplate the gap between who you are and who you want to be. I’m always very inspired.”

Forman and her family are members of a non-denominational synagogue in lower Manhattan; they mark Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, and they will celebrate the bat mitzvah of each daughter. In their circle are many other intermarried couples. After attending day school in California, where she grew up, she had what she calls a “big break” from Judaism. About 10 years later, she was pulled to return when a historian friend wanted to host a Passover Seder, and she participated fully, gradually understanding how much Judaism informed who she was.

“Maribeth is Jewish the way I’m Jewish,” Forman says, noting that all of her books have Jewish characters. “Her fears are probably universal, but she’s Jewishly neurotic in the best of ways.” Forman says that she sees Maribeth “every day of life, not just in myself but in women all around, when they are written off or underappreciated.”

Sandee Brawarsky is an award-winning journalist and essayist. She is the culture editor for the New York Jewish Week.