The History of Us

The History of Us
by Leah Stewart
Published by Touchstone 
386 pages
Genre: literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4.5 / 5

A few years ago, I read The Myth of You and Me, and I immediately was captivated by Leah Stewart’s storytelling. She is not a writer who feels it necessary to give us likable characters, nor does she back off from creating people who are deeply, almost painfully flawed.

And so it is with The History of Us, which tells the story of three adults and the aunt who raised them.

It’s been about twenty years since Eloise Hempel received the phone call that changed everything. An ambitious professor at Harvard, Eloise is about to teach a class when she learns that her sister and brother-in-law died in an auto accident. Eloise is the children’s guardian, and she must return home to Cincinnati to raise her two nieces and nephew, something that terrifies Eloise. She tries to enlist her mother, absent even from her life, much less the woman’s grandchildren, but to no avail. Her mother allows Eloise to move into her home, but as far as parenting her wards, Eloise is on her own.

The story largely takes place in the present, with occasional flashbacks to how Eloise adapted to motherhood. Theodora and Josh were old enough to know their parents, but Claire was a toddler at the time of their death. Her memories are hazy, undetermined. She considers Eloise her mother, something that occasionally rankles not just Theodora, but occasionally even Eloise herself. Although Eloise considers herself the children’s mother, and although she is wounded thinking that they consider her anything but, there is still part of her that yearns for her pre-motherhood existence.

Such ambivalence is one reason why Eloise is so believable – and also why she is so unlikable at times. She wants to get rid of her mother’s house, and when Claire moves to New York to pursue a career as a ballerina, Eloise believes she has her chance. Theodora, however, resists. Now, there is a character we alternately love and cringe over. As the one child with the clearest memories of her parents, we understand Theo’s need to cling to anything that represents their memory. In many ways, she thinks of herself as her siblings’ mother, more so than Eloise. And with reason; she shepherded Eloise through those first few years as a mother figure.

Josh is a typical middle child, only son of three children. He’s somewhat flighty, having ditched a career as a successful musician. Whereas he could be crafted as a stereotypical screw up and slacker, Leah Stewart instead presents him as far more complex. When he begins a new relationship, we want him to succeed, even if his paralyzing self-doubt makes us want to slap him.

And then there is Claire. SHE is the character we want to slap. Claire has a secret, you see, and her secret inadvertently binds the rest of the family together. Well, sort of. Leah Stewart won’t take the quick and easy path; instead, she continues to give us complexity. Like her aunt and siblings, Claire is not so easy to categorize.

This family will fascinate you, and you will find yourself wondering if it’s possible for any of them to be happy. Stewart pulls you in to their story, making you feel fully invested in who Eloise, Theo, Josh, and Claire are, what motivates them, frightens them, frees them. Their mistakes are believable, their story told as if it could happen to one of us.

Read this. Read it for the four fascinating characters at its center, as well as for its equally fascinating supporting cast. Read it to lose yourself in good storytelling and solid writing.

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Filed under good characters, good storytelling, literature

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