The History of Us by Leah Stewart
Leah Stewart was one of my professors at the University of Cincinnati. I was thrilled to work with her because I’d recently read her novel The Myth of You and Me. It’s about two young women who were best friends through their formative years, but had a gigantic fight and, eventually, a reconciliation. At that time in my life, I’d recently lost a friendship I’d depended on and was still grieving and making sense of that loss, while trying feebly to replace her. Reading and writing and talking with Leah about female friendships and how strong and fragile they can be was exactly what I needed.
In this book, again, Leah speaks to issues that are close to my heart. The History of Us is about academia and long distance relationships, the balancing act of a relationship and a creative career that may send you anywhere, the sacrifices of parenting, the feeling of being stuck. One main conflict is between the stigma of never moving from a shabby hometown and deep roots to a place that feels like home. The History of Us is set in Cincinnati, the big city near the small river town where I grew up. It was kind of fun to see places that I knew from my time at UC popping up in a novel. I think Leah does a pretty good job of telling about the city and using it thematically, even if there are a few passages in the beginning that read like a tourist manual. She describes well the inferiority complex that the city has, and the dread most of its more educated children feel about staying there. Yet those same people also feel strong emotional ties and nostalgia for their childhood hometown (I know I do), and Leah captures that as well.
The main characters are Eloise, a history professor, and her nieces and nephew. After the sudden death of their parents, Eloise moved back to Cincinnati to raise her young relatives. Seventeen years later, Theo, a grad student, and Josh, a failed musician, are living back at home, while Claire, the youngest, is on her way to New York to dance in the ballet. The family starts fighting because Eloise wants to sell the house they’re living in, and the dependent, sentimental twenty-somethings don’t want her to. Each of the four has their own issues with relationships and their careers and the way those two things make each other difficult, if not impossible. The story is a little slow at first, but picks up tremendously after a surprise halfway through. The second half of the book is absolutely impossible to stop reading. Leah has written another thought-provoking book that asks hard questions and refuses to provide easy answers. I enjoyed it even more than I was expecting to, and that’s saying something.