Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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LayoverReview - Layover
by Lisa Zeidner
Harperperennial, 1999
Review by CP
Apr 17th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 16)

Layover is a smart novel, cleverly written, with terrible grief at its heart. It is about Claire, a successful wealthy businesswoman (she sells medical equipment) in her early forties whose only child died in an accident several years ago--it takes the reader a while to work out how long ago. Her husband, a heart surgeon, has revealed that he had a fling with a colleague a year before. Claire tells her story, and she is not always the most reliable of narrators. She is, however, a fascinating character, because she has intelligence, depths, flaws, and a great deal of confusion.

For some reason (it is hard to know why exactly it happens when it does, although there are plenty of possible explanations), Claire goes off the rails during one of her many business trips. Her slide into a sort of breakdown is gradual, as her behavior becomes increasingly idiosyncratic. Of course, even though she and her husband went through psychotherapy after the death of their son, Claire lives with constant pain. Life goes on, even her son's. Claire lies to strangers about her son's progress, telling them that he is in college now. It solves the problem of how to reply when people ask, "Do you have children?" (The same problem is described powerfully in the memoir The Disappearance.)

What's distinctive about Layover is that Claire works through her problem by getting laid. Presumably the pun in the title is intentional, and it even occurred to me that there's "lover" in "layover". Given the well-crafted and deliberate writing with many layers of meaning, it's unlikely that there are any accidents in the choice of words, especially the title. Claire meets a seventeen year old boy in a pool -- a little younger than her son would have been -- and she seduces him. This is of course a strange turn of events, unlikely to be recommended by any counselors (after all, it probably would count as statutory rape in some states). Soon after she ends up having dinner with the boy and his bitter recently divorced mother, in a memorable scene, where Claire says just what she thinks. Claire's behavior is wild, not psychotic or necessarily crazy, but far from conventional and probably not even helpful, although some might argue that Claire does what she needs to in order to make it through an emotional crisis.

The plot goes beyond credibility in the bizarre way that Claire behaves, or in how other people react to her, but that doesn't seem particularly relevant to the purpose of the novel. This is not an exercise in gritty realism; rather, the novel aims to tell us abut Claire's state of mind, and her relationship with her husband, Ken. Although Ken is absent in most of the plot, nevertheless Claire thinks about him a great deal, and considers her marriage all through the novel.

The description of Claire's interaction with the woman with whom Ken was unfaithful is especially well done. A recurring theme is Claire clairvoyance, or at least her ability to understand other people and their weaknesses; while her own life starts to careen out of control she has almost supernatural insight into the emotions and foibles of other people. Claire thinks about this woman and her husband, and can tell all about their lives from a few details, like a Sherlock Holmes of psychology.

I don't know how often people work through grief using their sexuality, and I have little idea how psychologically realistic Zeidner's descriptions are, although they seem believable. Layover is gripping because it's unusual and serious, yet at the same time its narrator Claire has a sharp sense of humor and a strong understanding of her own sensuality.


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