Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley

Do you have a living will or an advanced directive? Do you know the difference? Do your loved ones know what your wishes are? Have you covered any and all possible scenarios with them? If you've chosen to not be kept alive by artificial means, is there anything that could possibly negate that wish? That question is at the heart of Priscille Sibley's beautiful and heart-wrenching debut novel The Promise of Stardust.

Matt and Elle have known each other their whole lives. They grew up next door to each other and were family long before they married. They know each other inside and out having weathered the tragedy of losing Elle's mother to cancer when they were just teenagers in love, again when Elle's previously undiagnosed medical condition causes her to miscarry several desparately wanted pregnancies, and most recently when their son was stillborn. Their relationship and devotion to each other has been tested by fire and it hasn't always stayed constant, with the two of them going their own ways for almost a decade before finding their ay back to each other. But by the time the novel opens, they have been married for five years and are clearly soul mates. Matt is a respected neurologist and Elle (nicknamed Peep) is a college professor and celebrated former astronaut and they have a pretty good life in the Maine town in which they grew up. Their one overwhelming heartbreak is their inability to have a child.

When the novel opens, Matt gets called to the ER because Elle has been injured in a freak accident. As a neurologist, it is immediately clear to him that she has suffered a terrible trauma falling from a ladder and hitting her head on a rock and she's brain damaged. After an operation to try and save her, she is undoubtedly brain dead and Matt makes the difficult and heart-rending decision to remove her from life support. But before that happens, Elle's doctor tells him that she is pregnant, only 8 weeks, but pregnant nonetheless. When an ultrasound shows that Elle's brain death doesn't seem to have affected the fetus, everything changes for Matt. He knows that her greatest fear in life is to be kept alive in a vegetative state, especially after she witnessed the slow, terrible, and painful death her mother suffered, comatose in the end but still obviously in pain. But he also believes that she would have given her very life to have a baby and so as long as there is even the most remote of chances to bring the baby to viability, he is certain she'd want to be kept alive by any means possible. And so he changes his mind about life support, desperate to give the baby a chance, to give Elle's baby a chance, and to give himself a reason to go on living.

Matt's mother Linney, a labor and delivery nurse, and her younger brother Christopher, whom she mothered even as their own mother was dying, both disagree with Matt's decision, arguing that Elle would never, under any circumstances want to be kept alive like this. And Linney feels so strongly about it that she is willing to take her own son to court over it, showing that 18 year old Elle drafted an advanced directive giving Linney the power to make her health care decisions so that she would never end her days the way her own mother did. Matt is unable to convince his mother that since Elle is brain dead and feels no pain that she would want to do everything in her power to give their baby a fighting chance. With the court case and Elle's added notoriety as an heroic astronaut, the case becomes a media circus and a locus for the right-to-life movement. Matt does not want to use his private struggle to to further a public political agenda he doesn't even agree with and which is only tangentially related to what is actually going on in the fight over whether to keep Elle alive or not, but the situation is a lightning rod anyway. The tragedy of losing Elle is not the only tragedy in the book, there is also the tearing apart of a close-knit and loving family because each of the characters is convinced that he or she knows what Elle would want, even in such a totally unfathomable situation.

The story is told in the present as the accident occurs and the court case moves forward but Sibley also adeptly uses flashbacks to give the reader the long and deep history of Matt and Elle, who they are now and the forces that shaped them into those people. Matt tells the story of his greatest heartbreak, losing the wife he loves more than life, but he gives Elle a voice as well, reading snippets from the journals she kept religiously. In recalling conversations with her and reading her journals, he is certain that he knows Elle's mind, can accurately predict what she would have chosen to do, and that in fighting to keep her alive for the baby's sake he is doing the right thing. Since the narrative is not told from Linney's perspective, there's no way to gauge why she believes equally adamantly that this is the wrong thing, the reader can only know Matt's assertion that his mother is unequivocably wrong.

The book and the many issues it raises are incredibly emotional ones and Sibley definitely tugs at the heart strings. The end was never really in doubt although there are some unexpected twists to get there and that generally made for a stronger plot overall. There were some incongruous bits (Elle's brother raging at Matt for getting Elle pregnant again as if it was all Matt's fault alone, as if Christopher actually got to have input, or that it was any of his business in the first place as well as the reappearance of Elle's ex-boyfriend and his fight to discontinue Elle's life support) that detracted a bit from the story. And the secondary characters, perhaps because of the narration perspective, came off as flat and one dimensional. But Matt and Elle's love story was well done and lovely and the grief and shock Matt was in, fluctuating from anger to despair and back again, felt authentic. This is exactly the sort of book that would be perfect for book clubs, packed with controversial issues and the idea of the intersection of private and public.

For more information about Priscille Sibley and the book check out her website, her Facebook page, her Pinterest boards, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this sounds like it would be a really interesting book, I'm going to have to look for it. I enjoy books that make you think about what your own life and what you would do in that situation.


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