A young woman’s bumpy search for self
Reading “Leaving the World,’’ you might sense that author Douglas Kennedy is suffering from a series of false starts. First he’s writing a novel about the suffocating bubble of Cambridge academia, then a novel about the shrill world of Boston finance, then a novel about art films and self-absorbed dilettantes, then a novel about detective work in Canada. As the intellectual Jane Howard follows a bumpy, shifty trajectory across the book, even Kennedy seems unsure of where her story ought to go.
Ultimately, though, “Leaving the World’’ seems like a well-planned journey, an intentionally random set of tests pushing our resistant heroine toward self-realization. Each time Jane comes through a different phase, from Harvard Graduate School to the isolation of Calgary, her identity and growth are meant to come further into focus. No matter how brainy and controlled this literary scholar may be, she has emotional blind spots that need addressing. Why is she drawn to such disappointing men? Can she learn to accept people who will not let her down? “Leaving the World’’ is set up as one woman’s zig-zaggy road map to empowerment.
The arc is sturdy enough, then; too bad the first-person prose never quite flies. Kennedy, author of eight earlier novels including “The Pursuit of Happiness’’ and “A Special Relationship,’’ has Jane tell her own story in a voice that is emotionally suppressed, a choice that doesn’t pay off. On the plus side, our narrator doesn’t dig into the kind of fruitless self-pity that can seem so indulgent to the outsider. There’s a welcome stoicism in her nature as she tries to stay clear-headed and makes only passing philosophical asides about human nature as the deaths and desertions in her life accumulate: “Yet again I was finding out one of the most fundamental rules of life,’’ she realizes. “[T]he repercussions of the past always rumble underneath everything.’’
But the way Jane sticks so obsessively to the facts too often casts a wooden, superficial feel over the novel. When she is forced into psychotherapy midway through the book, after the loss that will define her life, her resistance to reflection and her denial seem almost pathological. In the best novels, giving details of the plotline in a review doesn’t detract from the reading of it, since so much drama and texture is wound into the writing. But “Leaving the World’’ so frequently has Jane skimming from incident to incident that to give away the plot is to give away too much of the book’s substance. At times, “Leaving the World’’ feels like a first draft waiting for a second, more psychologically embellished layer. It has the limited nuance of a movie treatment.
Here’s the outline: The story opens with a milestone moment in Jane’s Connecticut childhood — the one that rumbles underneath her adulthood and holds her hostage. Having dinner at a New York restaurant with her warring parents on her 13th birthday, she announces, “I am never getting married and I am never having children.’’ Her slimeball father uses Jane’s sad, innocent comment as an excuse to leave her mother the next day, and her mother then blames Jane for the divorce. Everything that comes afterward points back to her parents’ breakup and the way they heaped the responsibility onto her rather than taking it on themselves. She feels undeserving of happiness, as if she needs to be punished for an early sin.
As a graduate student in literature, Jane gets into an affair with her doctoral adviser, a star professor named David Henry. She takes a back seat to his unhappy, high maintenance marriage, of course — she is too ready to be treated like a second-class citizen. She moves on to a career in high finance — a job that falls into her lap despite her lack of credentials — then turns to teaching at New England State University. A new relationship with a film fanatic named Theo leads her toward a major crisis that pushes her to take refuge from her memories in Canada, where she tries to immunize herself from the hurts of the world.
I won’t say “Leaving the World’’ is an unpleasant read — the chapters fly by, as we track Jane’s unpredictable travels. But it’s an unsatisfying read. The author strives to give an epic feel to Jane’s voyage, as she spans the continent in reaction to her tragedies and disappointments. And Kennedy, who lives in London but spends part of his time in Maine, clearly has a feel for landscapes and the way a majestic view of a mountain range can break your heart. The material set in Cambridge and Boston is grounded in a knowledge of those places.
But as a psychological epic, the novel doesn’t quite take us through the terrain of Jane’s transformation. It simply indicates her journey.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.