Tanya J. Peterson’s novel Leave of Absence is one I read in 2013 and one that made my list of favorites last year.
Peterson’s newest novel, My Life In A Nutshell is equally compelling, telling the story of Brian and Abigail. Brian is brilliant, but suffers from severe, crippling anxiety that causes him to dread contact with others. Moved from foster home to foster home, seven year old Abigail comes to live with her aunt and uncle. Through her school, she meets Brian, and he becomes one of the few people she trusts. The book explores how Brian and Abigail, through their own difficulties, help each other.
This was a tough book to read. As someone who does not suffer from severe anxiety and panic attacks, I couldn’t really appreciate what living with them might be like- and I realize that reading something in a book is not like experiencing it first hand. But the way Peterson writes Brian, I found myself tensing up, empathizing with his distress. When Brian was able to take a deeper breath, so was I. So when I say that this is a tough read, I mean it with the highest compliments-I think reading this has made me more sympathetic to what many people face daily.
Abigail has been passed from foster home to foster home, suffering physical and emotional abuse. Now she’s living with an aunt and uncle she barely knows. Something in Brian connects to Abigail, tethers them together. But even that is tenuous, as Abigail’s instinct is to protect herself, so that when the inevitable abandonment comes, just maybe it won’t hurt so bad, this time.
I think perhaps that it is their loneliness that is the common ground for Abigail and Brian- and perhaps some subconscious knowledge that although their challenges are different, the other may be the only one who can help them.
Peterson uses some everyday, common moments to illustrate perfectly how debilitating Brian’s illness is to him- deciding what to wear to a friend’s home for pizza takes a nearly superhuman effort from him. But it isn’t farcical. Peterson portrays Brian with compassion, making the reader want to be more compassionate, realizing there are lots of people whose stories we don’t know. That things we take for granted my be a hellacious undertaking for others.
This is another book I highly recommend- for a glimpse into a world we as readers may not fully understand, but also well-drawn characters with a story to tell.