Reviewed by Anri Wheeler
Kristen Rademacher’s From the Lake House: A Mother’s Odyssey of Loss and Love (She Writes Press, July 2020) opens with the author and her cat getting ready to leave the titular lake house. We learn that this is where she has been able to “stop spinning” and “make [herself] whole again.” The descriptions of flowers, birdsong, fog, and water are vivid, and prime us for a story of healing in nature.
Chapter two moves back in time to when Kristen meets Jason, her “match made in Rebound Heaven.” She is a newly single teacher, left by the man she thought would become her husband and the father of their one, or two, children. When Kristen quits her job and follows Jason to North Carolina, the stage is set for the rest of the story: transition and grief piled onto a relationship with a tenuous foundation.
A recurring trope in the book is the opposites attract nature of Kristen and Jason’s romance. At first, Kristen is charmed by Jason’s stories of deer hunting and NASCAR, which she contrasts with her “preppy New England” schooling and love of Broadway plays. With each subsequent mention, however, the “northern, liberal urbanite” growing weary of the “country-loving southerner,” grew increasingly one-dimensional in its portrayal. This lack of nuance in exploring their unlikely coupling glosses over issues of privilege and socioeconomic class. The cowboy boots and camo portrayal of Southerners came off as elitist condescension. And the countless invocations of northern liberalism became grating, especially when they’re read during a time where we are reminded almost daily of Dr. King’s warnings concerning white liberals.
When we eventually encounter the moment we know is coming, it is still jarring. An eerie calm takes over the writing, the dialogue matter-of-fact. Once again, as at the outset, there is a sense of deep narrative pull. Kristen is doing for the reader what she comes to do for countless others in the wake of her loss: “I realized I had to guide people repeatedly, that despite a hole ripped through the center of my life, most people needed me to take the lead.” These moments of Kristen keeping it together for those around her are punctuated by powerful flashes of recognition. In one such scene, a nurse affirms Kristen’s motherhood. In another, Kristen’s childhood friends come to visit her and they all commiserate about pregnancy and labor—a brief return to normalcy that allows her to start to access the depth of her grief.
Kristen’s voice is most potent when she asks the excruciating questions that bloom from hindsight. As she shoulders immeasurable loss, she also forges beautiful connections. “The bereft, I’d come to understand, don’t feel only sad; we sometimes feel more of everything.” What remains curious is that the lake house is the backdrop for a mere 11 pages of the book. The image on the cover of an empty chair on a dock overlooking the lake is oddly prescient in that neither Kristen nor the reader ever gets that close to the water. Thus, one of Lake House’s most striking lines—“I embraced solitude not as a means to survive, but as a way to thrive. Loneliness is an aching void, but solitude, I came to understand, is a nourishing renewal”—feels unearned.
From the Lake House: A Mother’s Odyssey of Loss and Love is an invitation to bear witness to the one woman’s devastating loss and its immediate aftermath. We see her come apart “like a busted-up jigsaw puzzle,” and yet the promise of the opening remains unfulfilled. The years and events we are told contribute to putting those pieces back together, never come into view.