Before We Sleep: A Novel
- By Jeffrey Lent
- Bloomsbury USA
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber
- May 25, 2017
This classic "journey tale" hits all the right notes.
One could argue that all good stories describe journeys of discovery, real or metaphorical. It’s a time-honored template that begins with a widening of horizons, and ends with both knowledge gained along the way and a newfound appreciation for where it all began. It’s a circle as old as time.
Jeffrey Lent’s latest novel, Before We Sleep, is a worthy addition to the canon of journey fiction. His story begins with young Katey Snow, a bright girl on the edge of adulthood, armed with just enough cash from her summertime waitressing job to set out on an adventure before she goes to college.
Katey yearns to escape Ruth, her prim and critical schoolteacher mother, and Oliver, her sweet but oddly discombobulated WWII veteran father. She wants to venture away from the tiny village she knows too well, to both witness the dawning of an era that will define her generation and to dip her toe into an ocean she’s never seen.
But first and foremost, Katey is determined to track down a particular someone — the source of a stack of Christmas cards that her mother has kept hidden in a shoebox — whom she hopes will help her understand why she doesn’t fit in back at home.
And as so often happens on journeys, it’s the unexpected characters who young Katey meets along the way who provide significant wisdom and context. There’s a shopkeeper who points her to a cheap off-season motel and a good place to view the Atlantic, a wise health-food store proprietor who has ample time for philosophical musings, and a fellow youthful traveler who introduces Katey to a growing “back to the land” cooperative movement.
Sadly, there are also individuals in even the most utopian of communities who are inclined to say one thing and do the exact opposite. Katey, unfortunately, learns that lesson the hard way.
Like much of his previous fiction, Lent’s novel begins in northern New England, which he describes in elegant prose, both spare and vivid.
As the threads of the narrative emerge, both the timeline and the geography of Before We Sleep expand: first, with Katey’s circuitous route from the coast of Maine to the civil-rights-torn South of the 1960s, and second, in the alternating chapters devoted to Katey’s parents’ personal histories, starting with flashbacks to their Vermont ancestors, continuing through Oliver’s return from Europe plagued by memories he can neither share nor forget, and ending with a mother and father anxiously hoping for the return of their only child.
In this, his sixth work of fiction, Lent has seamlessly woven together an intimate family drama against a shifting social backdrop.
Rather than use the news of the day as historic shorthand to advance the plot, Lent’s rich narrative shifts gently back and forth between a world in flux, as seen through his young heroine’s fresh eyes, and a world steeped in her parents’ shared heartaches and damaged souls, “both close and forever distant.”
There’s a “Wizard of Oz” quality to the double-track narrative, as the chapters alternate between the parents’ recollections and their daughter’s search for truth in her life.
And just as L. Frank Baum told us, sometimes the desires we seek truly can be found in our own back yards, if we look hard enough. Even if what we desire is simply to find a new normal, and not a staged version of life put on for public consumption, a life where what might’ve been considered lowering one’s expectations provides a peacefulness that turns out to be entirely worth the trade.
In the end, Lent’s characters remind us that whether we travel far and wide or only grapple in our heads with the facts of our lives, we need to find our own truths.
There’s a lovingly described encounter toward the end of Before We Sleep, where Katey finally meets the person she’s pinned all her hopes on to explain the biggest question about her family.
It begins as an awkward pas-de-deux that challenges Katey’s worldview and leaves her feeling like she’s made a huge mistake, coming so far, expecting so much. All I can say is that the conversation the two finally circle around to — in which they discuss how one should choose a dog, and at what point in a young person’s life they can make such a commitment to another living creature — moved me to tears.
If I have any criticism of Lent’s extraordinary writing, it’s this: as much as I enjoyed every single word of this novel, it could have ended right there, with Katey, finally headed back home, pulling over to make a long-distance call to the couple who await it.
Kristin H. Macomber is a writer who lives in Cambridge, MA.