Before heading to the self-help books looking for psychological insight, be aware that reading fiction can also have strong therapeutic benefits. One example is local author Laura Moriarty’s The Rest of Her Life. Moriarty received a degree in social work from KU, which is excellent training for the themes she explores in her novel: social status and crime, parent/child relationships, and cyclical family dynamics. Moriarty’s prose is not clinical or didactic but flows as well as any good fiction storyteller.
Protagonist Leigh Churchill is a junior high English teacher who fights to keep The Great Gatsby on her curriculum and reads the works of Flannery O’Connor in her spare time. Moriarty’s writing style reflects her character’s favorite authors. I was also particularly reminded of Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as I read this novel, Moriarty’s second. The Churchills are an upper-middle class family living seemingly fortunate lives in a small town west of Topeka. Leigh’s husband Gary is a Shakespearean professor at the local college. Her high-achieving, popular eighteen-year-old daughter Kara has her pick of many elite colleges. Younger son Justin is sweet and sensitive, but a loner amongst peers.
As we delve beneath the surface of their comfortable existence, we understand why Leigh naturally gravitates toward her son and why she’s not as close to Kara as Gary is. Gary grew up in a supportive—financially and psychologically—family. Leigh was raised by a young, poor, single, narcissistic mother who abandons sixteen-year-old Leigh after years of resenting motherhood. After rescuing a dog running loose in the streets, Kara accidentally hits and kills another teenage girl, Bethany Cleese, while driving the family’s Suburban and talking on her cell phone. Gary tries to protect his daughter from the consequences no matter what, but Leigh has difficulty hiding her ambivalence toward the situation, at the expense of her already chilly relationship with Kara. Recognizing a lot of herself in the young victim, Bethany had been one of Leigh’s favorite students. Leigh doesn’t want Kara to go through any unnecessary punishment, but she also understands how horrifying this event must be for the victim’s mother, Mrs. Cleese, who struggles not only with losing her child but with making ends meet as a house cleaner.
Before the accident, Leigh never understood why her relationship with Kara had been so difficult. But as she reflects upon the tragedy and compares Kara’s life to her own upbringing, Leigh discovers how difficult it is to truly see oneself from another’s perspective, and that parents with the best intentions can unwittingly inflict their own unaddressed problems on their children. When Leigh begins to treat Kara as an individual instead of trying to parent a reflection of herself, things turn around for them. Moriarty has given us an excellent reminder that one needs to confront the past in order to handle what life throws at us in the present.