"How could you ever know what choice was the right one to make and what opportunity might be a mistake you would regret all your life?"
Much of the world's best fiction hangs upon this question, and author Caroline Leavitt steers readers into a white-knuckle ride of lost love and longing in "Pictures of You," a novel that never disappoints for a second.
The story is jump-started by tragedy, as two Cape Cod women collide on a foggy highway, an accident with decades of repercussions for those involved.
When the exhaust clears, Isabelle Stein, a talented young photographer with a failed marriage in her rearview mirror, must come to terms with the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nine-year-old Sam Nash is the other witness to the accident, and in his childish despair convinces himself that he's to blame. The lovable, asthmatic little boy at the center of the action is the novel's absolute standout. In this, a "writer's writer" segment of literary fiction rarely successful at producing thoughtful or believable juvenile characters, Leavitt is spot-on breathing life into little Sam; his scenes feel lived-in and three-dimensional.
In the aftermath of the disaster, everyone involved, including Sam's father, Charlie, must try to fabricate new lives out of the wreckage of the past, and Leavitt's flair for details (a long-lived tortoise as a pet, the heroine's penchant for old-school photography) lend the novel a satisfying, if curious, terrain.
As in any Leavitt novel, matters are rarely as they appear to the casual bystander, and the author exhibits the talent for nuance in human relationships so mercifully devoid of romanticism they are reminiscent of early-career Alice Munro.
When Isabelle is thrown into the path of young Sam and his grieving father, for example, this daring intersection of lives might have seemed unbelievable in lesser hands. As Charlie is plagued by loneliness, attempting to regain the love he lost, readers are reminded at every turn in the road of life's frailty, the vulnerability of the human condition.
" ... [Charlie] drove. The whole world seemed to have emptied out. The streets were dark and there were only a few cars on the road. Occasionally he saw someone walking. A man with his head bent low, crying. A couple with their arms slung about each other. The only people out were either miserable or in love."
"Pictures of You" is steeped in rich symbolism that creeps up on readers with subtlety: Vision is obscured by fog, a camera's viewfinder is a potent mechanism to focus a character's attention. Leavitt brings a master mechanic's well-stocked toolbox to her trade.
Most satisfying of all, with Leavitt's careful steering, even the wildest coincidences in this brooding, beautiful novel sparkle with all the haphazard brilliance of broken glass upon the concrete.
Andrea Hoag is a book critic in Lawrence, Kan.