In 'Leave Me,' a mother does the unthinkable: She leaves

“Leave me” book cover
Gayle Forman's new novel "Leave me" tells the story of a working mother who reacts to having a by-pass after a heart attack by deserting her husband and children.
Courtesy Algonquin Books

In best-selling author Gayle Forman's new novel "Leave Me," a mother of 4-year-old twins does the unforgivable: One day, she just walks away from her family.

She has reasons, of course. Forman's looking for a particular audience to discuss those reasons when she reads from the novel in the Twin Cities on Thursday.

Her novel opens with an almost fatal misunderstanding.

"Maribeth Klein was working late, waiting to sign off on the final page proofs of the December issue, when she had a heart attack.

Those first twinges in her chest, however, were more heaviness than a pain, and she did not immediately think heart. She thought indigestion, brought on by the plate of greasy Chinese food she'd eaten at her desk the hour before. She thought anxiety, brought on by the length of tomorrow's to-do list. She thought irritation, brought on by the conversation with her husband, Jason."

Maribeth is stressed out. Like many working mothers, she's mummified in layers of responsibility.

Gayle Forman
Author Gayle Forman is best known for her Young Adult books. However she says while her past books have featured younger protagonists, she has always had them dealing with issues of interest to her adult mind.
Courtesy Algonquin Books, Image c Stomping Ground Photo

"And she manages, like so many mothers, the household as well," Forman said. "So she works all day, gets off early enough to get home for the kids, and then works a sort of second shift, and even kind of a third shift in terms of being the emotional caretaker of the family."

She has no time for a heart attack. But she ends up needing bypass surgery at 44. When she gets out of the cardiac unit she returns to the unchanged demands of children, husband and work.

"That leads to her rather shocking decision to run away from her family," said Forman.

She empties her bank account and drops off the grid. She leaves New York for Pittsburgh. She needs to escape the pressure.

And her health crisis has reawakened a question she has long ignored. Maribeth is adopted. She's never had an interest in finding her birth mother. But now she needs to know if there's a history of heart disease in her family. And, given what she's just done, she begins wondering about her own mother's motives in giving her up.

Much of "Leave Me" is based on Forman's own experiences. It began with a family trip about five years ago.

It was "this beautiful, idyllic vacation, except there was me up in a guest bedroom Googling 'heart attack symptoms'," she remembered.

Forman's mother had her first bypass at 48. Doctors put it down to genetic bad luck. Forman feared she was next in line. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack. Yet the fear of what might happen to her, and her family, stuck around. She says she thought about writing the story then. She laughs when she describes it as a revenge fantasy.

"But eventually, after I found out it wasn't my heart, the idea cooled," she said. "But it came back after a couple of years with that same premise and with similar but also different ideas I wanted to explore."

She began writing. But here's the thing: Gayle Forman is famed for writing Young Adult novels. Her book "If I Stay," about an injured teenager hovering between life and death, was a bestseller. It became a popular movie in 2014.

While her books have featured young protagonists, she said, they deal with issues she's examining with an adult mind.

"Until now, it's always been these younger characters that have come to drive the bus," she said. "There was really no way to do that in a story about marriage and motherhood, so it was time to turn to people my own age."

Stories about fathers deserting their families are relatively common. Society condemns mothers who leave as having committed an unforgivable sin. Yet Forman says as she talked to women about the idea of just walking away, she discovered it was an almost universal fantasy.

"And the way they told me this, it was like a confession, and they were looking around as if the mom police were going to get them," she said. "And yet it was so universal. But it's so taboo that even fantasizing about going away for a day or two is something that women feel guilty about."

Which is why Forman is doing a huge book tour. At a time when money-conscious publishers are reluctant to send out writers to more than a few events, Forman's appearance at the Edina Barnes and Noble at 7 p.m. Thursday is the 12th stop on a 33-city tour. While she's happy to see her YA fans, she's on the road to meet her new readers. She wants to talk to the mothers.

"I know what a big ask it is to ask women to kind of come out to see me and talk to me," she said. "It's been less like your typical book reading and perhaps a little bit of a consciousness-raising session, because there is so much shame around our feelings of exhaustion. As if it's mutually exclusive that we love our children and want to run away."

Forman said it's a huge issue about which everyone should be talking.

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