Book Review: The Future Tense of Joy by Jessica Teich

Note: I got this book as an advanced reading copy from Netgalley, but you can read it in September 2016.

So, this book made me cry.

It was in the last quarter, when Jessica intervenes in a issue her daughter is having with a schoolmate. The school has a word, the crisis is averted, and her daughter goes back to being a happy, if somewhat pensive, child.
“It was that simple,” says Teich, “That’s how easily someone could have saved me…”

And I cried, because like Teich, like many women who have been abused, I realised it could have been that easy for me to be saved too. And it stings that no one did.

This is not a novel about abuse necessarily, although Teich does go into her history in depth (abusive boyfriend, absent mother). It’s a story about a woman who sees the world she’s trying to desperately to mould into perfect safety slowly eroding away. Late at night, questioning her choices as she navigates family life, Teich picks up a decade old obituary and sees a kindred spirit in the dead girl, Lacey. Both high achievers, Rhode scholars, women with difficult relationships with their mothers – how is Teich in this life, with her daughters and a husband who adores her, and Lacey in the ground after committing suicide at 27?

The novel then rambles through Teich’s search to uncover Lacey’s life. She contacts Lacey’s family and friends, trying to get a sense of her and trying to uncover what drove her to such a drastic act. At the same time, Teich uncovers more and more of her own life, explaining and exploring her neuroses using Lacey’s life as a mirror.

Some of the writing here is just beautiful. Poignant, reflexive and heartfelt, Teich treats Lacey as a beloved sister. Her love for her children shines, and her pain at not feeling the connection to her family that she craves is exquisitely written in.
That said, the book goes on way too long. The whole last section could be easily removed without losing any of the story. The story about Angelia is pretty, but I really don’t see how it fits in with the surrounding story – if it had been woven in better, introduced earlier it may have worked, but it’s like a story that’s been added later to drive home a point, and it’s quite jarring. The parts about her travelling back to Oxford could have been more succinct, because again, a lot of the conversations she has seem to be added to just reinforce what the book is about.

I feel like a lot of the present day autobiographical content is very self indulgent. Yes, memoir is by definition indulgent, but not THIS indulgent. It’s as if Teich wants applause for working out her demons, returning to her husband, learning to release her vice-grip on her children, and learning to live her life despite the abuse she suffered as a teen. But she doesn’t need to ask for accolade. A lot of women (and men, i guess) who want to read this understand implicitly how hard it is to love and be loved after abuse. How hard it is to let children out into a world that is inherently unsafe. How guilty not being happy with a life that looks perfect on paper makes you feel. Just saying ‘here’s my history, here’s my demons, here’s what I’ve done’ would have been good enough. And made for a book that didn’t drag at the tail end.

The writing style nearly makes up for it. But not quite. However, this would have been an extremely difficult book to write (and harder yet to release into the world), and I have to give Teich props for handling the subject matter with poise and delicacy. At no point did I feel her inclusion of Lacey was voyeuristic or macabre (and I’m pretty sure Lacey’s family felt the same). She shows her daughters in a way that demonstrates her absolute devotion, but doesn’t make them larger (or more perfect) than life. She handles delicate, uncertain and painful topics with grace, and there should be more books that talk about this stuff.

3/5 stars.

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