Those We Love Most is Lee Woodruff’s first novel, following her essay collection, Perfectly Imperfect, and a work of nonfiction called In an Instant. That powerful book, co-written with her husband, ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff, chronicled their family’s life in the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury Bob suffered while embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. Her new novel explores some of the same themes: A sudden tragedy strikes one person, leading many others along a complex emotional path that winds in and around an entire family.
In fact, there are two families involved here, the Munsons and the Corrigans, two generations of a once-happy Chicago family. Two marriages feel the weight of grief and the reverberating changes caused by a shocking event. Maura and Pete Corrigan, the younger couple, look to Margaret and Roger Munson, Maura’s parents, for comfort and guidance through the disaster. The older couple tries to support their children without interfering in their already-shaky marriage. At the same time, Margaret and Roger must carefully step around the widening cracks in their own enduring but flawed union.
One of the surprising things about Those We Love Most is that it tells such a difficult human story and is at the same time so entertaining. In just a few sentences, Woodruff can capture the smell and taste of anxiety and the thick listlessness of grief. Yet there are lovely touches of humor in unexpected places, too, as in this description of a woman who pays the Corrigans much too much attention during their trouble: “Celia was a crisis rubbernecker, a kind of emotional tick, swelling with empathy as she feasted on calamities, inserting herself to extract the details.“ Woodruff also has a way of detecting and deflating the cliches so easily offered to victims of catastrophe. It’s cheering to read Roger’s response to the phrase “the new normal.” “The new … normal,” he thinks. “What was that? Well, he hadn’t wanted new. He liked the old Roger.”
The characters in Those We Love Most are lively and appealing, yet lost and troubled, as well: the powerful businessman unhappily facing retirement and deteriorating health, the adolescent boy unable to forgive himself for another boy’s death, the young mother who looked away for one critical second, the older mother who yearns to remain in charge. Because of their shared tragedy, these people find themselves traveling in unaccustomed directions and connecting with one another in unexpected ways; yet ultimately, in Woodruff’s carefully crafted, compassionate novel, they all make their way home.
Reeve Lindbergh reviewed this book for The Washington Post.