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Days of Wonder


Days of Wonder

Sometimes, though very rarely, a novel comes along that is so full of life, love and wonder that it almost feels impossible to imagine the writer’s hand behind it --- the kind of novel that breathes with spirit, vitality and a convincing, complex range of human emotions. This year, that novel for me is Caroline Leavitt’s DAYS OF WONDER.

Six years ago, single mother Helen and her 16-year-old daughter, Ella, lost everything when Ella was arrested for the attempted murder of her boyfriend Jude’s father, a prominent judge in New York City. Ella and Jude, lovelorn teens faced with an imminent separation, hated how controlling Judge Andrew Stein was and dreamed of how their lives might be different without him. Still, murder is extreme, even for passionate, dramatic adolescents. However, when a judge is threatened, the truth becomes forgettable --- unnecessary, even --- especially in favor of paper-selling headlines like “Queens Killer-Cutie’s Attempted Murder” and “Redhead Caught Red-Handed.”

"If there is one thing Leavitt can do, it’s write a love story, regardless of whether the love is romantic, parental or something else entirely. And in DAYS OF WONDER, her talents are on full display."

Now, at 22, Ella has been released after a journalist took a deeper look at her case, exposing a coerced confession, abusive practices by police, and a kickback agreement between local law enforcement and a nearby prison. Ella hasn’t really been proven innocent, and she is still legally a convicted felon. But for the first time in her young adult life, she is free. And with that freedom comes the ability to revisit what happened that terrible evening. Even though the papers dug up every unflattering picture of her, every flubbed line at a school play, and, most damagingly, her social media posts to Jude claiming that she would do “anything” for him, they missed one crucial detail: Ella was pregnant when she was arrested.

Facing a sentence of 25 years and with only her own exhausted, drained single mother to care about her on the outside, Ella made the impossible choice to give her daughter up for adoption, her hand pushed by the revelation that Jude had already signed over his parental rights. But now she is ready to meet her daughter, even if just to confirm that she is safe, happy and loved.

Of course, Ella's first days “outside” are full of other, more pressing concerns. The media has not forgotten the killer-cutie of six years ago, and Ella is changed by her time in prison. She is no longer as trusting or communicative, and she is still deeply mourning the loss of Jude, whom she never heard from again after her arrest. Although Helen does everything she can to make her feel safe and at home, Ella bristles at the closeness, fostering a secret belief that her mother has never quite believed her innocence.

When she is able to trick a lawyer into revealing the identity of her daughter’s adoptive parents, Ella sets her sights on Ann Arbor, Michigan, leaving behind the cozy Brooklyn apartment she shares with her mother and taking on a job as an advice columnist for a local paper. The gig is perfect for her. Not only does it guarantee anonymity (she writes under the same “Dear Clancy” name that the paper has used for decades), but as a woman who has been through quite literally everything, Ella is actually terrific at delivering compassionate, thoughtful advice. She quickly becomes a natural.

When the two women part ways, both experience a rebirth of sorts. For Helen, who saw her beloved Hasidic community stripped from her when she became pregnant out of wedlock, Ella’s move means regaining her life and living it on her own terms for the first time. Even though she is in her 40s, she has never had a boyfriend or even dated. And now, without two-hour trips to and from the prison each weekend and with a grown daughter already raised, she finally can consider what she wants from life. She is shocked to realize that the last time she felt truly happy was when Ella and Jude were dating, and her humble home was filled with laughter, compassion and family --- that difficult word you never seem to appreciate until you lose it.

For Ella, now firmly ensconced in Ann Arbor and planning her days around walks to the townhouse where her daughter lives, it means finding a way to be in her daughter’s life and either redeem or put an end to her first love --- the force that changed her life forever but that she wouldn’t change for anything. When she is able to befriend her daughter, named Carla, and her adoptive mother, Marianne, she notices an undercurrent of abuse within the household that feels eerily reminiscent of the original violence that changed the trajectory of her life forever. So she dedicates herself to fixing it, even if it means losing her daughter again.

Caroline Leavitt alternates between the perspectives of Helen and Ella, walking readers through their hurts --- Helen hearing her family tell her that she is no longer theirs, Ella realizing that Jude has abandoned her to the justice system --- but also their moments of wonder and celebration. Each woman, so very full of love and a true appreciation for the world, is pushed well out of her comfort zone to grow, find family and fall in love. But no matter how brave or accepting each woman is, neither of them can truly forge ahead without confronting that night, Ella’s arrest, and the choices that both Judge Stein and Helen made for their children in the aftermath.

To say that there are hiccups in each woman’s journey would be the understatement of a lifetime, and there are plenty of painful, disturbing moments here, as well as a few scenes in which readers must completely suspend their disbelief. But these instances are balanced and supported not only by Leavitt’s prose, which always carries a lovely cadence and earnestness, but also by her deep, penetrating gaze into both Helen and Ella’s feelings about motherhood. Leavitt doesn’t follow the recent trend of motherhood fiction dedicated to reminding us how hard it is. Instead, she reminds us how worth it every hard moment is and how tenacious the human spirit can be when backed up by the restorative power of love.

The resulting confessions and realizations are heart-rendingly beautiful, achingly poignant, and innately and almost miraculously full of love and wonder. If there is one thing Leavitt can do, it’s write a love story, regardless of whether the love is romantic, parental or something else entirely. And in DAYS OF WONDER, her talents are on full display.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 3, 2024

Days of Wonder
by Caroline Leavitt

  • Publication Date: April 23, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 164375128X
  • ISBN-13: 9781643751283