Book Talk: *Skipping a Beat*, by Sarah Pekkanen

Skipping a Beat: A Novel
Sarah Pekkanen
Washington Square Press (2011), Edition: Original, Paperback (ISBN 1451609825 / 9781451609820)
Fiction, 352 pages
Source: purchased e-book (Kindle) (ASIN B0043RSK94)
Reason for reading: personal

Opening Lines: “When my husband, Michael, died for the first time, I was walking across a freshly waxed marble floor in three-inch Stuart Weitzman heels, balancing a tray of cupcakes in my shaking hands.

“Shaking because I’d overdosed on sugar—someone had to heroically step up and taste-test the cupcakes, after all—and not because I was worried about slipping and dropping the tray, even though these weren’t your run-of-the-mill Betty Crockers.”

Book description: Julia and Michael met as high school students in their small, poverty-stricken West Virginia town. Both products of difficult childhoods, they find a sense of safety and mutual understanding in each other. Shortly after graduation they flee West Virginia to start afresh.

Now thirty-somethings, they are living a rarefied life in their multimillion-dollar Washington, D.C., home. From the outside it all looks perfect—Julia has become a highly sought-after party planner, while Michael has launched a wildly successful flavored water company worth $70 million.

But one day Michael stands up at the head of the table in his company’s boardroom—then silently crashes to the floor. More than four minutes later, a portable defibrillator manages to jump-start his heart. Yet what happened to Michael during those lost minutes forever changes him. Now Julia must decide: should she walk away from the man she once adored, but who truthfully became a stranger to her long before his near-death experience—or should she give in to her husband’s pleas for a second chance?

Comments: It can be difficult to acknowledge that you’re no longer the same person at 35 that you were at 18. (It can be difficult to acknowledge you’re 35, period.) And when you’re partnered with the same person at 35 that you were with at 18, acknowledging that neither of you are the same people any more can be downright threatening to life as you know it, but sometimes circumstances force it on you anyway. It happened to me, but not the way it happens to Julia Dunhill in Sarah Pekkanen’s second novel, Skipping a Beat.

Julia and Michael have been together since they were Julie and Mike, small-town kids from West Virginia who shared a desire to make good in the world and the drive to work to make it happen. And they have made it, with material success beyond anything they might have imagined back when they were younger…but now it feels like they share little besides their enormous home and possessions, and they’ve gotten used to living that way. It all changes on the day Michael comes back from a near-death experience – and he’s come back ready to change everything else.

Pekkanen has written the novel in Julia’s first-person voice, and one thing that struck me is that she’s not afraid to make her narrator unsympathetic at times. Julia’s pondering over whether to stay with her husband after he’s declared his intention to give away everything he has could easily be viewed as materialistic and heartless, under the circumstances. But Julia is also pondering how she and Michael got to the place they’re in now, and that provides a context for the reader to understand that her concerns aren’t as strictly materialistic as they may seem. While she may not always come across as sympathetic – or maybe because of that – Julia did come across to me as emotionally honest and complicated, and I was impressed with Pekkanen’s ability to portray that.

I was also impressed with the novel’s exploration of the complexities of marriage. Julia is made to confront the often-unspoken compromises and agreements couples sometimes make so that they won’t be forced to examine things too closely, the separation that can develop – and come to feel normal – between two too-busy people, and the challenges of communication, and I thought that these elements were effectively incorporated into the story. I found some of the situations in the novel a little contrived and wasn’t always convinced by the characters’ behavior in those situations, but I did feel that the characters’ emotional portrayal rang true and was quite convincing, and I really appreciate the author’s ability to bring that across to me.

I still haven’t gotten around to reading Sarah Pekkanen’s first novel, The Opposite of Me, but I’m not at all sorry I didn’t wait to read her second. Skipping a Beat presents a rather unique situation with a degree of emotional honesty that makes it accessible and satisfying.

Rating: 3.75/5
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