May contain minor spoilers, but likely nothing you won’t infer from the jacket copy.
Emily Giffin and Jennifer Weiner are my women of summer. Without their smartly-written, sassy brand of women’s fiction, my long flights and days at the beach would take on the dull patina of an old photograph. I need their tales of love, friendship and what-might-have-been to fully enjoy my vacations. And Emily Giffin’s latest, out July 24, does not disappoint.
Sophisticated Marian Caldwell has worked hard to keep the past way past. Now a successful television producer in New York City, she’s living the dream: city living; great career; and handsome, wealthy boyfriend — a man who is clearly crazy about her, even if he’s not clear on his intentions for their shared future.
After another argument about the “M” word, Marian is surprised to find a visitor in her hall: 18-year-old Kirby Rose, a pretty teen drummer with seeking answers. Kirby’s arrival throws a wrench into Marian’s carefully-constructed identity, and her probing forces Marian to recall a past she’d hoped was sealed shut. But once the wheels are set in motion, they cannot be stopped — and Marian and Kirby have no choice but to go in search of “the one thing missing in their lives.” And what they discover surprises them both.
Emily Giffin’s Where We Belong struck a deep chord with me. Having guessed the connection between Kirby and Marian simply from reading the cover blurb (as you likely have, too), I figured this story of first love, youth and redemption would ultimately bring me to tears. And it did.
Marian is the sort of polished, Type-A New Yorker often populating women’s fiction. Determined to make it big from an early age, she’s dedicated her professional life to paying her dues and moving swiftly up the ladder — and her relationship with Peter, the head of her TV network, doesn’t hurt. Still, she believes their love is genuine; their affection is clear, anyway. And that feels good enough. For a while.
Outgoing Kirby, preparing for her high school graduation, has always felt separate from her hard-working parents and perfect younger sister. Aware she was adopted at birth, Kirby doesn’t bear any ill will toward her family or carry a chip on her shoulder about her biological parents . . . but she’s always wondered about them, thought of them, maintained an active curiosity about who and where they were. As her eighteenth birthday approaches, she’s able to request the name of her biological mother — which leads her to Marian, logically. But fearing her parents’ hurt feelings regarding her search, she chooses to keep her quest secret.
Things don’t go smoothly. Having a long-lost birth daughter appear on your doorstep late one random night isn’t exactly a recipe for a joyful reunion. Stunned, Marian attempts to make sense of Kirby’s sudden presence in her world — but it’s not easy. Her mere existence has been kept a secret from several key people in Marian’s life, and the day of reckoning seems to be upon her. And it’s terrifying.
Marian herself is a bit of a vacuum. Beyond her ambition and high-powered TV job, we don’t know much about her — and live more in the past, in fact, than we do in the present. Where We Belong flashes between present day and life for Marian and her first love almost two decades earlier, before life became undeniably complicated. As Marian’s story unfolds, it’s hard at times to sympathize with her and her decisions . . . but I tried to put myself in her place, questioning what I would do as a scared 18-year-old deeply flushed with shame, doubt and uncertainty.
The story really picks up as Marian and Kirby reunite in search of their shared link: a man named Conrad. I found the flashbacks of Marian and Conrad’s summer together very romantic, authentic and painful. Giffin perfectly crystallizes that moony, delightful stage of first love — a time that can never be recaptured again. My heart broke as the story unfolded, desperately hoping things could turn out differently . . . but knowing they couldn’t. And wouldn’t. Where We Belong’s main strength came in the form of these recollections, I think, and how much they made my heart hurt. Giffin knows her stuff.
The subject of adoption is handled with a great deal of grace and sensitivity, too. Always aware that Kirby already has a mother, Marian treads their new relationship carefully. She acts more like a protective aunt, or an older friend, and is always sure to avoid stepping on the Roses’ toes. I respected her for backing away when she needed to, and for paying careful attention to Mrs. Rose’s feelings. It was the kind, mature thing to do.
I read this entire book on a five-hour plane ride, racing to find out what would become of this beleaguered crew. Though I had a few quibbles with the plot’s predictability, it was nothing that ultimately hurt the story for me. Giffin delivers good women’s fiction, that’s for sure, with a cast of dimensional characters and a story of love and redemption I couldn’t put down. Though it didn’t have the punch of Something Borrowed, my favorite of her novels, it resonated with me. And I think it’ll resonate with you, too.
4 out of 5!