A young woman returns to her small-town Adirondacks home to care for her mother—just as secrets from her past begin to surface—in this “luminous”* novel by best-selling author Alison McGhee
When Clara Winter left her rural Adirondack town for college, she never looked back. Her mother, Tamar, a fiercely independent but loving woman who raised Clara on her own, all but pushed her out the door, forcing Clara to build a new life for herself, far from her roots, far from her high school boyfriend, far from the life she had always known.
Now more than a decade has passed, and Clara, a successful writer, has been summoned home. Tamar has become increasingly forgetful and can no longer live on her own. But just as her mother’s memory is beginning to slip away, Clara’s questions are building. Why was Tamar so insistent that Clara leave home all those years ago? Just what secrets was she hiding?
In this “quietly powerful” (Booklist) and “luminous novel” (Kirkus Reviews), Alison McGhee tells the story of a young woman finding her way in life, determined to know her mother — and by extension herself — before it’s too late.
It was not possible.
That was my first thought. Because had she ever been on a date? Had she ever kissed anyone? Had she ever asked someone to a Sadie Hawkins dance, or been to a prom? Had she ever gone to a bar with someone and put quarters in a jukebox and played pool and ordered a second cocktail because she was having fun? Had she ever sat across from a man who had put on a clean shirt for the occasion, at a small table with a tablecloth and a candle and not one but two menus, one for wine and one for food? Questions shoved up against each other in my head.
No and no and no and no and no.
The interviewer, her legs crossed, her fingers hovering over her keyboard ?— ?“Miss Winter, to your knowledge, did your mother, Tamar Winter, ever go on a date?” ?— ?No, before the quotation mark was fully slotted next to the question mark. “Did your mother, Tamar Winter, ever go on a dateNo.” A broken sentence. Part question but mostly No.
Why so quick with the No, though, Miss Winter? Wouldn’t you want her to have gone on a date? Wouldn’t you want your mother to have had some happiness in her life that way, a few hours where she was not just your mother, but a young woman out with a young man who thought she was lovely?
Lovely? Lovely? Stop it.
It was not possible to think of her as anyone other than exactly who she was, who she had been: a woman of the north woods, a lumber-woman in a lumber jacket, a splitter of wood, a remover of decals, a non-Sunday singer in a choir, a manless woman, a boyfriendless woman, a husbandless woman, a dateless woman, who was, who had been, my mother. The word lovely did not apply, but for the fact that it did.
After I waved goodbye from the porch, I went straight to the shelf in the kitchen. My mother’s faded face smiled up from her perch next to Jack. My heart skipped a beat and then began rocketing around its prison of sinew and bone, looking for a way out. Et tu, heart? Heart, quiet thyself. But the wayward heart did not listen, and down I lay on the floor, photo flat against my shaking chest, the diminished stacks of books-as-coffee-table rising around me.
New images of my mother scrolled by, leaping and dancing across the spines of the remaining books of my childhood. Tamar with her hair French-braided, wearing that pretty white shirt, standing on the porch and smiling as a car drove into our driveway just beyond the frame of the picture. Tamar at the Boonville County Fair holding the hand of a faceless, bodiless, voiceless man just beyond the frame of the picture. Tamar at Hemstrought’s Bakery in Utica, pointing at a half-moon cookie and smiling at a man just beyond the frame of the picture.
Just beyond the frame of the picture. He, whoever he was, was there. Had he been there all along?
“You are way overreacting here, Clara,” I said out loud as the photo and I lay on the floor by the books. “Calm the hell down. It’s a photo.”
But there are times when you know a thing, immediately and of a piece, and you can’t un-know it. You can’t convince yourself that you are overreacting. I held the photo above my head and looked at it this way and that way, sideways and upside down. Nothing made the look in my mother’s eyes go away. Nothing from here on out would make the softness, that softness I had never seen, go away.
Who? When? How? Where?
Out the door and into the Subaru the minute my heart reverted to a normal rhythm. Down the half hour to Sterns, then onto Fox Road. When Annabelle opened the door I held the photo up in front of her, pincered between my thumb and forefinger. She leaned back instead of forward ?— ?middle-aged eyes, reversing course ?— ?and squinted. When she didn’t say anything, I waved it back and forth, dancing it through the air between us. I didn’t trust the steps I was standing on. They were made of plastic and flimsy metals. They could give way at any time. I waited for her to say something.
“Nice to see you too, Clara,” was what she said, after a minute or so. She stood aside so that I could come in, but I didn’t move. From what I could see and smell there was nothing baking in her kitchen, nothing bubbling on the stove under a pot lid. “How can I help you?”
I said nothing. I stood there and kept holding the photo. If my instinct was right, then Annabelle would crumple before my silence and tell me what she knew about this unfamiliar Tamar Winter dancing in the air before her. She would tell me about the look on my mother’s face. She would tell me who had taken the photo.
I stood silently, and so did Annabelle. She tilted her head as if she were trying to figure out why I was holding the photo before her like a piece of evidence. She frowned. She looked at me, except not really, because her eyes didn’t meet mine. And when someone’s eyes won’t meet yours, even though you can tell they’re trying to make their eyes meet yours, when their face turns even a fraction of an inch away from yours, when you can feel the unease flowing through their body even though they are forcing themselves to stand elaborately, casually still, that’s your answer.
Cultivate silence. Silence, and patience, and determination.
Now that I had my answer ?— ?she knew who had taken that photo ?— ?I stepped inside. The trailer felt warm. Not thermostat warm, not oil or gas or baseboard or electric-space-heater warm but warm by nature, as if Annabelle herself, the great furnace of her body and her heart, were all that was necessary. I pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat down. Annabelle stood across the table from me. She was trying to intimidate me by not sitting down, not joining me, as if that would make me stop whatever it was I was doing. Too late, Annabelle. You’ve already given yourself away and there’s no going back.
I laid the photo in the precise middle of the table. “Who took this?”
“No clue.” She was trying not to look at the photo but her eyes kept dragging back to it, as though there were something fascinating about it.
“Where was it taken?”
“When was it taken?”
“You got me.”
The kitchen was the detaining room and Annabelle was the suspect, trying her best not to cave until the public defender arrived.
“Annabelle, tell me what you know.”
She shrugged. “It’s a nice photo of your mother. Something else to add to the pile.”
“The pile? The pile of what?”
“Things you have of her. Memorabilia.”
“She’s still around, Annabelle. She’s not dead.”
“You know what I mean.”
The sentences sounded like Annabelle sentences but the Annabelle-ness of her voice was gone. She sounded quiet. She sounded tired. The photo lay on the table between us, a jigsaw piece missing its puzzle. She pressed down on one slightly ripped corner with the tip of her finger, as if she were trying to make it wh...
A Midwest Indie Bestseller
“This sensitive novel…offers readers an intimate and painfully aware portrait of the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's on its victims as well as the people who must watch their tormented loved ones tumble into the disease's terrible abyss…Never Coming Back, [is] a novel about profound sadness, insurmountable loss, and the possibility of allowing new people into your life.”—Star Tribune
“[A] quietly powerful novel….Fans of Sara Baume, Holly Chamberlin, and Francesca Segal will appreciate McGhee’s magnetic prose and her ability to pack a richly detailed story into a slim novel. Atmospheric and introspective, Never ComingBack will resonate with those who have lost a parent to illness or estrangement but still have questions they’d like to be answered.”—Booklist
“A luminous novel….the author’s gift for subtly poetic language and her believable dialogue make Clara’s journey worth following. McGhee has an almost musical ability to repeat the themes of her novel with enough variation to keep them fresh. Fierce, complicated characters appear to grow out of the severe Adirondack landscape, and McGhee swerves away from sentimentality in addressing the relentlessly changing relationship at the novel’s core.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[A] poignant meditation on the relationship between a mother and daughter….Though this well-written story will appeal to a broad range of readers for its rich characterization, mothers and daughters will especially find Clara’s and Tamar’s story moving and memorable.”—Publishers Weekly
“McGhee’s own gift for words takes you to the very heart of this tense yet tender relationship. Through vivid and meandering dips into memory, McGhee draws us into Clara’s rapidly shifting thoughts as she tries to piece together previous assumptions with new discoveries.”—BookPage
"McGhee’s latest novel...not only tackles the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship and the unresolved conflicts that can have lasting effects on both women, it also informs readers about how Alzheimer’s can quickly and cruelly ravage a person."—Library Journal
“Never Coming Back is a deeply moving exploration of growing up and growing old, and the ties that bind parents and children – and the mysteries that sometimes keep us apart.”—Chris Bohjalian, best-selling author of The Sleepwalker, Midwives, and The Sandcastle Girls
“When a parent is involved, the journey of a caregiver can take the mind back through all the bumps and beauties of a complicated relationship and the heart and soul into new and challenging territory. Alison McGhee captures this—all the nuances and conflicts—in her beautifully written novel. Much to praise here but it is the remarkable characterization of the mother, the indomitable Tamar, who McGhee paints with such feeling, that lingers for me. A wise, humane book and a very special novelist.”—George Hodgman, New York Times best-selling author of Bettyville
“Alison McGhee returns to the landscape of the Adirondacks in this beautifully devastating novel about the things that remain unspoken between parent and child. Clara Winter’s need to know what lies on the other side of her mother’s Alzheimer’s-induced silence drives this book toward its ferocious conclusion. Never Coming Back is an exquisite book, brimful with nostalgia, love, regret, humor, yearning--and unforgettable prose.”—Julie Schumacher, author of Dear Committee Members
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