Is there anything more horrific for a parent than the loss of a child?
For Hannah, daughter Emily’s death not only guts her, but it leaves her alone. She had Emily on her own (she used a sperm donor), and she lives several states away from her parents. Her brother is around, but he travels a lot for work. Other than her best friend Sophie, the co-owner of the salon where she works, Hannah is alone.
She knows that somewhere out there are people who are living thanks to Emily’s organs. Hannah had to decide what to do with her daughter’s eyes, liver, heart, kidneys – even her skin – so suddenly that it wrenches out hearts almost as much as it does hers. But she knows it’s the right thing, even if she chooses not to dwell on it.
Until the day she must, that is.
Maddie is fifteen and has battled a life-threatening illness most of her life. She needed a liver to survive, and she received Emily’s. Her mother Olivia has crafted her life into three parts: Maddie’s mother and caretaker, dutiful wife to successful businessman James, and abused spouse desperate to protect herself and her daughter.
One day Olivia brings Maddie to Hannah’s salon, and as Hannah fixes Maddie’s hair, she realizes that sitting in the chair is someone who received an organ of Emily’s. Emily is there, to some degree, but she’s not. Maddie is her own person, quite distinct from Emily. Yet Hannah is drawn to her, and perhaps even more so to Olivia, who is the first person Hannah has wanted to be friends with since she and her best friend met.
This is told from the three women’s perspectives, and each voice is distinctive. Hannah, grief stricken and mourning her daughter’s death, is fragile and tentative. She knows she has a life to live, but the thought of living it without Emily crushes her. Her grief is the only solace she needs or wants, and she shakes off attempts by anyone else to separate her from it. Hannah knows, even if she can’t acknowledge it, that she will be ready when she’s ready.
Olivia helps us understand why women stay with men who abuse them. In Olivia’s case, it’s for one reason: Maddie. She can’t leave James because in doing so, she would have to leave Maddie. James would make sure of that. We can see why she doesn’t realize that she’s being abused at first because James’ behavior is so sporadic. She was young when they married, so when he begins by saying apparently benign things such as “you’d look good with blonde hair,” of course she wants to please him. Olivia is just that: a pleaser.
As someone who has known only illness for most of her life, Maddie is sympathetic. She seeks acceptance in the anonymity of online gaming, going so far as to create a fake persona. Why wouldn’t she? The “real” Maddie is bloated, has bad skin, and might die. When she receives the liver, it is not a quick fix. She takes handfuls of drugs several times a day, and she lives with the constant fear that the liver might not be enough to save her, to cure her.
That these three women come together unfolds naturally, even with the gimmick of Hannah’s salon. Emily may have saved Maddie, but Maddie and Olivia will save Hannah. And Hannah must save them, too.
The first three fourths of this novel are so fantastic, I just want to shake you and scream at you to go read it. NOW. The last fourth, though, disappoints. It’s almost as if Amy Hatvany was emotionally spent from the story and needed to wrap it up quickly and neatly. The ending feels almost disingenuous or cheap.
But what could be different? Something sad? More sadness for Hannah, Olivia, and Maddie? Surely not. Surely those three deserve the happy ending, right?