What seems at first a tragic and predictable tale about an emotionally abusive husband assumes, over time and the differing perspectives of family members, the weightier depiction of a life shattered by physical damage and the urgency of others to recapture the normalcy of routine. The imbalance in Maddy’s marriage is longstanding: public defender Ben Illica, once the object of her unconditional love, has left the elegant cloak of his charm in the dust, thoughtfulness and consideration exchanged for demands, a lack of patience and a hair-trigger temper that has his wife and three children humming with anxiety and the need, indeed the instinct, to appease. Ben doesn’t hit (yet), but he lashes out, throwing objects, punching walls, actions sufficiently threatening to strike fear into Maddy, seven-year-old Caleb, nine-year-old Gracie, and 14-year-old Emma.
An unnecessary accident while driving (an argument exacerbated by speeding and a tailgating driver) sends Maddy through the windshield and into a coma with a traumatic brain injury. Ben is battered but essentially unhurt, leaving the family tilted off its axis as they face a future where Maddy’s presence is uncertain. That she does survive is a relief yet only the beginning of a long, slow process that requires a relearning of language, emotional balance, physical stamina, and a myriad of other challenges, progress agonizingly incremental. While supportive family members and friends (notably Maddy’s parents, sister, and best friend) help Ben transition the altered woman from hospital to home, none can truly appreciate the enormity of the daily battle to recover or the frustration she endures: pieces missing from her memory, impulses she cannot control, a need to lash out, every detail of the accident erased. Ben lurks in the shadows of his guilt, temporizing over admitting the truth to Maddy while family members balk at his inability to claim his culpability.
In point and counterpoint, Meyers explores the fragile balance of a family in crisis. Maddy works diligently to regain her former self while Ben relies on patience as a means of atonement, yet slipping into old behaviors as the situation grows more stressful. Emma, increasingly burdened, manages the younger children in the sudden chaos of a world turned upside-down, unable to cope with a potentially helpless mother and a father who needs always be appeased. Meanwhile, Maddy’s parents’ generosity threatens to stifle her nascent efforts, an overweening mother infantilizing her daughter’s endeavors. In spite of the family’s agreement to wait for Ben to tell the truth, bitterness over the broken woman’s fate at the hands of her husband erodes the manufactured façade of serenity. The home seethes with fears, guilt and unmet needs, the heart of the family restored to her rightful place but now unfamiliar.
In the end, Maddy’s fight to reclaim her former self sets this small universe aright, not Ben’s need to atone and be forgiven. Despite significant obstacles, Maddy intuits the importance of changing the contours of her life, redefining what is tolerable and what is unacceptable, even amid the clamoring of children who want their family back to normal. If weakness and coercion have created this tragedy, the way forward cannot be compromised, dominated or rationalized, Maddy no longer willing to be a victim of bad choices. This hard-won territory is intricately mapped by an author averse to easy solutions, embracing reality instead, the long, painful road toward a hopeful, healthier future.