Title: Coming Up for Air
Author: Patti Callahan Henry
Release Date: August 16, 2011
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Ellie Calvin has always lived in her mother’s shadow, so when her mother dies, Ellie is unsure of what to do. Seeing her ex-boyfriend, Hutch, at her mother’s funeral opens up repressed emotions, especially since Ellie’s marriage to her husband, Rusty, hasn’t been the happiest. Desperate for some peace, Ellie flees to her best friend’s summer home in Alabama, where Ellie’s mother spent her summers as a teenager. There, Ellie learns new things about her mother, revelations that had been hidden from her, and she begins to wonder how well she knew the woman who was her mother.
Patti Callahan Henry’s novel Coming Up for Air is a delicious Southern read, one full of old family secrets and lost loves. From the very first page, readers will want a glass of iced sweet tea and a comfortable rocking chair or hammock in order to devour this lovely novel. It is full of those ambiguous details that make Southern novels so appealing and is the perfect read for a breezy summer afternoon.
Just because it’s entertaining does not mean Coming Up for Air is fluff, though. Ellie has some serious personal issues to grapple with when the novel begins. From the beginning, it is very clear that she is unhappy in her marriage. Rusty isn’t abusive, but he is incredibly manipulative. Every time he appeared on the page, Rusty inevitably made me angry, and all his apologies and niceties were completely hollow. Henry has created a complex antagonist in Rusty; he isn’t the one-dimensional evil villain of many books, but instead is a layered (and incredibly frustrating) person.
Once Ellie leaves for Alabama, everything changes. Besides the occasional phone call, she is shut off from her life at home. While she could sit down and focus on her own situation, she chooses to busy herself trying to find out more about her mother’s past. It’s only through this search, and understanding why her mother was so difficult at times, that Ellie really receives the clarity she needs in her own life. I really loved this aspect of the novel, the mystery behind Ellie’s mother, and the way Henry incorporated the civil rights struggle into her book.
Coming Up for Air is a fun but pensive novel that would be perfect for book clubs. Readers will sympathize Ellie’s intense personal emotions as her life is thrown into shambles while also wanting to discuss her decisions and take a close look at her marriage. It’s a lovely, warm Southern novel that will keep readers interested from beginning to end.