Eleven-year-old Isabelle Carter stopped speaking nine months ago. Her parents, Wilson and Ruth, have no idea why. School administrators, also perplexed, are ready to give up on the child. Her friends already have. Countless doctors and psychiatrists fail to uncover Isabelle’s secrets – or to cure her. So begins December, Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop’s second novel.
In this moving account, Winthrop explores the effects that a child’s psychological crisis has on not only the child but also the parents, their relationships with each other and with the world at large. As the title suggests, the novel follows the Carter family during what is usually the busy but joyous holiday month of December. Instead it becomes a critical countdown when the principal of Isabelle’s private school delivers an ultimatum - Isabelle must be speaking and return to school in January, or they will end her enrollment.
Winthrop is a skilled and beautiful writer, expertly shifting the novel’s point of view, revealing the innermost thoughts of Wilson, Ruth and Isabelle. From an early section narrated by Isabelle explaining a message iced on her father’s birthday cake, the reader learns that:
“There is comfort in her silence, a sort of safety, an invisible wall between her and the world that makes her feel untouchable. That is partly why she chose it, she thinks. Though maybe it has really chosen her; she hadn’t realized she would become trapped, unable to break out. She has lost control of her control. This is why she is sorry: she knows she is causing her parents pain.”
With repeated references to a trapped squirrel suffering self-inflicted injuries, an old apple tree dying on the Carter’s country property, and the beloved family dog’s fight with cancer, Winthrop intimates that Isabelle’s problem stems from a loss of innocence. Ruth’s memories, as well as Isabelle’s rituals, also point to an obsessive compulsive disorder.
Both Ruth and Wilson are portrayed realistically as loving parents grappling with a beloved child’s puzzling mutism and, quite possibly, serious mental illness. Ruth’s raw emotions due to the daily stress of living in such an unreal situation and heightened by her feelings of guilt are readily apparent: “She turns around, holding her lips tight around a mouthful of frustration…” In another passage, Winthrop paints a portrait of Ruth as she stands outside their building in the city, cold but waiting “until she is numb enough to go inside.” Wilson is compellingly drawn as a sad, sometimes embarrassed father who becomes overly optimistic that a trip to Africa might nudge Isabelle out of her silent cocoon.
Some of the bittersweet scenes, such as a birthday dinner with walkie-talkies supposedly presented from the now non-vocal Isabelle, provide comic relief while underlining the Carters’ vulnerability. The story does arrive at a satisfying climax, but Winthrop’s readers - just like Ruth and Wilson - are likely to hunger for definitive answers in this compelling tale of Isabelle’s adolescent troubles.