Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Book Review: Where Our Closure Begins by Alex Nájera

    I don't know why we don't see more family dramas. It's the one thing that every reader can relate to - the struggles to make families work. Whether that means fighting for a marriage or repairing relationships with parents or siblings, we all have context for understanding that conflict. It's a story that can be filtered through almost any genre, from science fiction to romance, but it can stand on its own as well.

That's my favorite aspect of Alex Nájera's debut novel, Where Our Closure Begins. There are so many relationships in the main character's life that need shoring up, and yet she chooses to sabotage them all, like many of us do, by reaching past them for some sense of closure in the one relationship that ultimately brought her mostly humiliation and pain.

The novel focuses on Dr. Emma Lamb, a young professional therapist with a growing practice, who is succeeding at life, growing relationships with her wife, her father, and even her estranged siblings - baby steps, y'all. She's an insightful and effective therapist, perhaps because of her own struggles in the past, with eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors. At first, she seems completely healed, but then the sudden return of a past lover, the source of much of her pain and shame, throws her world into increasing disorder. In pursuing the titular closure with Theodore, blurring the lines between seeking answers and rekindling lust and emotions, she risks her practice, her marriage, and her relationships with nearly every friend and family member. As she continues to break her own rules and go against her better judgment in pursuit of the past, she dismantles her future one relationship at a time.

For those of us who have been hurt in the past, it's a concept that resonates - the idea of desiring closure or explanation or, God forbid, apologies, so desperately that everything good in our lives becomes secondary. When life is good, we looks at others in that downward spiral and wonder how they could be so stupid, but if we're being honest, there's something paralyzing about hurt and emotional trauma that leaves us stuck in time until we really work through that pain and release it. Some readers might look at Emma and question how she could risk throwing her life away, starting with making unethical career decisions concerning Theodore that could cost her her license and practice for good. But there is a kind of gravity that pulls us in the direction of unresolved hurt that, apparently, even therapists aren't immune to. Nathaniel Hawthorne touched on this concept in The Scarlet Letter when he wrote about the protagonist, Hester Prynne:

“... it may seem marvellous, that this woman should still call that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs be the type of shame. But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime; and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it. Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil.”

Every time I teach The Scarlet Letter, I have at least a few students who ask why Hester doesn't just leave? Why not put Boston behind her and start a new life somewhere else? But there really is something about unresolved trauma that roots us to a place or a person, or both, so that we end up pursuing even more hurt in the name of healing. I see this same dynamic in Emma Lamb. Her Boston is Theodore Eullie, and she can't leave it behind, can't let it go, because she believes that there are answers out there that will somehow make her whole. She desperately clings to Theodore as a potential source of healing, but only sustains more injuries from his callous, deceptive, and manipulative behavior, while her true medicine, her family slips away from her.

In addition, the novel alludes to a day that Emma almost died, somehow connected to and caused by Theodore, which is both the source of much of her pain and the beginning of her climb out of the self-destructive pit. If I had one critique of the novel, it would be that I wanted more foreshadowing of this event. The novel is obviously working toward that revelation, but I wanted some flashes or teases of it on the way. Still, when the reveal comes, it is devastating in its rawness. It satisfies in the sense that it explains much of Emma's trauma and her fixation on Theodore, but it also gives us a sense of how far she has come, the effort she has put into recovery, and the risks she has taken with all of the good things in her life.

Overall, I really enjoyed Where Our Closure Begins, especially for all of its family drama. It is an honest depiction of how we sometimes neglect or even shove aside the ones who love us most in pursuit of some apology or vengeance that is never going to make our life as sweet as the people we lose in the process.

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