Book review: Em & Me by Beth Morrey

When it comes to life, we always have the best of intentions.

We’re going to carpe diem, triumph over the odds, find success and happiness in multitudinous quantities and prove to all the naysayers from our past that we have what it takes, and then some.

It’s a glowing, exciting vision of the future that we aim to take and make real in ways even our vaulting hopes and dreams haven’t envisaged, and which will validate all the faith we, and others such as supportive teachers or parents, had in us.

But sadly life, the very thing that’s supposed to see us being carried aloft on a palanquin to adoration and acclaim, can sometimes (often ?) let us down, and like Delphine in Beth Morrey’s sagely honest novel, Em & Me, we find ourselves wondering where all the parades and gloried moments went.

A ferociously bright student with a love of literature and gift for writing penetratingly insightful essays that offer hitherto unheard insights on much-loved books and plays, Delphine is destined for study at one of the Oxbridge universities, her life as a child of near poverty all set to be redeemed by academic pursuit.

And then life happens, or rather, her daughter Emily aka Em happens, and suddenly the 17-year-old student, already struggling to extricate herself from the grief over her mother’s untimely passing, finds her life options narrowing to a point of near-invisibility.

“She frowned for a second, before her brow cleared. ‘Ah yes, Emily. Roz mentioned her. Quoting Shakespeare. Extraordinary. Chip off the old block, eh? She joining the fast-track class?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘She’s very excited.’

Mrs Boleyn nodded in approval. ‘Excellent. Just like you!’

But I was determined that Em would be nothing like me. She would succeed where I failed.” (P. 17)

This is pretty much how things stay for the next 11 year or so, with Delphine dedicating herself not the storied dreams of a possible future but to protecting and nourishing her equally clever daughter Em, a vivaciously inquisitive mind who has a very real chance of having the life that her mother was never able to see to fruition.

She’s effectively locked in time, her life one long blur of awful waitressing and cleaning jobs, little to no intellectual rigour and scant friendship, her domestic situation confined to the apartment in which she grew up, the one where her father has retreated in her enervating grief, even many years later, and in which she and Em share a bedroom.

It’s adequate but it’s hardly fulfilling and while she and Em enjoy a Gilmore Girls level of camaraderie and repartee, Delphine’s life has all but stopped, her life lived, as the back cover blurb so eloquently but sadly putting it, “in safe shades of grey”.

The beige is in the ascendancy until one day Delphine takes an unexpected stand, asserting herself for the first time in many years, an act which initially looks self-destructive in the extreme upsetting the status quo in a way that could imperil what little she has of a successful life in her grasp, but which turns out to be the best, most self-determinative thing she has done in years.

Beth Morrey (image courtesy Penguin Random House)

It’s then that Delphine finds her life slowly coming happily and gloriously alive, though Morrey is always careful to anchor every aspect of her protagonist’s surprising reawakening in a groundedness that speaks to the fact that after so much trauma, both catastrophic and slow-movingly inert, it’s easy to be suspicious of even good things happening to you.

But, and here’s the effervescent delight of this wondrously uplifting novel, good things do indeed happen.

Delphine gets a new job with a beautifully inclusive and loving immigrant couple from Eritrea, she re-discovers her love of singing and literature, finds friendship blossoming in unexpected places and ways, and finally finds the past letting go its vice-like grip on her present, and increasingly, her future.

These are second chances writ poignantly and happily large as Delphine finds herself reconnecting with her father, exploring new depths to her relationship with Em, over which hangs one very big secret which she will need to address sooner rather than later, and inadvertently creating a found family, the kind that makes up for all the loss and grief of her younger years.

Em & Me is a clarion call reminder, realised in small, special and nuanced moments and slow-burning events that come to have more of an impact that they might first suggest, that second chances are possible even in a world that often suggests life is a one-shot deal with no do-overs possible.

The thing about Em & Me that will really warm your heart and fire up your ability to see colour springing bountifully forth in the grey, and after two years of pandemic, even that is a necessary and special gift, is that all of the hopeful and good things that happen to Delphine feel like they could happen.

“At some point, while I had been trying to turn my life around, often making a mess of it, my dad had been enjoying his own quiet renaissance – a gentle progression towards the light, nudging his strings, semitone by semitone, along with me. I felt tears rise up, threatening to overcome me as I looked at him, standing there so proudly. Forgetting Adam, and Dylan, Letty, and my own guilt about Em, I sat down at the piano, and began to pick out a tune, softly, Dad humming along, his hand on my shoulder.

Sometimes you just had to leave your worries on the doorstep. For the duration of the song, at least.” (PP. 374-75)

This is not some Disney-esque flight of tulle-suffocated fantasy, all singing snowmen and magical undoings of broken, cursed pasts (though, let’s face that, that can be lovely and good for the spirit to experience in at least animated form).

Em & Me, for all its lighter-than-air hopefulness and soul-reviving loveliness, always remembers that even when life get decidedly better than we can still be held captive by the pain and trauma of the past.

But while it acknowledges that and doesn’t pretend that life getting infinitely better is the result of some magic wand being waved with no consequences or implications, it dares Delphine, and honestly by moving extension, to seize the opportunities that come her way and to do what she can to build on them and to remake her in sparklingly dazzling colour.

Always aware of what she lost when her mother died and she fell pregnant with Em, Delphine slowly comes to embrace all the very good things that happen to her in ways that feel very human and relatable while taking us on a journey with this bravest of characters into places she has never been before, and which she could come to call home, metaphorically and for real.

As restorative novels go, Em & Me is one of the best to come our way in a while, understanding the weight of the past and the way it can burden any move into a revived present and blossoming future while celebrating the power of connection between mothers and daughters, and the power we all have to stare down the darkest of days and find life, hope, connection, self-fulfilment and love when we least expect it and in ways that will defy who we were and redefine who we might become.

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