A few days prior to high school graduation, Kara Churchill’s life changes forever when her car accidentally claims the life of classmate Bethany Cleese. The already strained relationship she has with her mother, Leigh, is pushed to the breaking point. In the aftermath of the tragic events, both the community and the Churchill family split apart. Now Leigh must come to terms with what her daughter has done and the ramifications facing their family while protecting Kara from the public reaction. Leigh’s helplessness in the face of her daughter’s refusal to be comforted forces her into unwelcome reflection on her own relationship with her mother and some earth-shattering realizations of her own.
The Rest of Her Life, the new novel by Laura Moriarty, shares the stark misery of a family in turmoil and explores the impact such an event has on each member. From the first pages, it is clear that the relationship between Leigh and Kara is neither strong nor healthy. At the moment when all her concern should be on reaching her daughter in her zombie-like state, Leigh is aware that her concern is at not having time with her daughter during this major crisis.
“But Gary had already gotten his time alone with Kara on this terrible night. Leigh deserved hers. There was something ridiculous and petty about worrying about this now, at a time like this, but on a deeper, more crucial level, Leigh also believed something – or someone, maybe Gary – was always cutting her off from her daughter in a subtle but strong way.”
Leigh worries that a moment of forgetfulness in Kara’s early childhood has led to the permanent schism between them, wondering if “you could permanently alienate your child by simply laughing at her at the wrong time.” Leigh has dedicated her life to being a better mother than her own and, as she tries to reach her daughter, it becomes increasingly clear that she resents Kara’s lack of appreciation.
Moriarty slowly unfurls the dysfunction in the Churchill family, culminating in the night Gary questions Leigh about her care for their daughter, and she suddenly wonders how he can so completely misunderstand her: “Tell me you want the best for her…Leigh. Look me in the eyes and tell me you want the best for Kara.” A short while later Leigh’s best friend Eva presents a similar sentiment: “Ahhhhh, now we get to…the heart of it…You know what you are? You’re the happiness police.”
Leigh refuses to acknowledge she has anything but love for her daughter, yet readers are left wondering. She has survived so long purely on the anger she has for her mother that she has prevented herself from any enjoyment of the present. Leigh has used her anger as a shield to prevent people from getting close to her; this has prevented her from seeing the consequences of this choice on her family.
The Rest of Her Life is held back from being a truly exceptional novel by the character of Leigh. She is so unlikable that readers may be tempted to toss aside the novel without finishing it, a crime with a novel this good. While readers can see why Moriarty chose to write Leigh the way she did, it is not enough to make up for the “cringe-factor” experienced each time she begins to complain. Readers who persevere are rewarded with a novel that stays with them long after the final page.