Book review: Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

If there’s one “truth” we are told growing up that needs some serious re-examination if we are to have any hope of getting through life with our sanity and emotional good health intact, it’s the idea that there is something inviolable about the good things that happen to us.

Were that was true but alas it isn’t and yet time and again when we finally land that dream job or score that perfect contract or find the soulmate for all time and all things, we tell ourselves that we shall forever more be happy.

It’s an enticing piece of reassurance that does serve some purpose; after all, who wants to go through life expecting everything to go pear-shaped eventually?

It might but that’s no kind of outlook to live with and so telling ourselves little white lies about the enduring satisfaction and longevity of the good things is a necessary part of being alive.

But what happens, as onetime feted children’s’ book author Judy Vogel discovers, when all the good things seem to end at once, or at least very close to each other, and you don’t have the ability to bounce back as you once might have done?

“It’s hard for me to believe those moments ever happened; that I was ever in the middle of all that love, and time, and possibility, and that now I’m not. Life eventually takes away everyone and everything we love and leaves us bereft. Is that its sad lesson? That’s the only explanation I have for why I now wear the dog; my version of magical thinking: little tiny cracks are forming inside me every day and only the dog is keeping me from coming apart completely.” (P. 4)

In Laura Zigman’s charmingly reflective novel Separation Anxiety, Judy answers this more than niggling sense that all the comforting wheels have fallen off her life at once, by spontaneously grabbing a baby sling, long stored in the garage, putting it on and placing her small Lassie-like dog Charlotte in it.

Does that sound like an odd strategy for coping with the domestic slings and arrows of life’s misfortune?

Well, it is, and Judy knows it, but with her marriage to Gary in decline – they still live together but only because neither one can afford to divorce – her son Teddy in the throes of early moody teenagerhood, her best friend dying from cancer and her once stellar children’s book writer career down a wholly unlovely toilet, Judy is close to cracking and desperate and a dog in a sling seems like the only reasonable option she has at her disposal.

For a wholly whimsical idea, Judy’s emotional journey from “normal” suburban mum – if she’s honest, neither she nor Gary nor their marriage are remotely ordinary but she liked to once think they were – comes with a sizable amount of meaning.

At no point does Zigman treat Judy’s plight at anything other than very serious, and while her solution might seem embarrassingly offbeat, the issues that led to its adoption are anything but.

Laura Zigman (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

So while Separation Anxiety has some fun with the idea of some keeping their therapy dog on a sling on their body rather than on a lead next to them, it is also highly respectful of the fact that Judy has real problems with no easy solutions and if a dog carried idiosyncratically staves off total breakdown, then so be it.

It’s this mix of gleeful irreverence – Judy and Gary, who may not be as far apart as Judy suspects, are more apt to ridicule than join in, outliers who never quite manage to fit anywhere which mostly they are are okay with – and serious consideration of some major life issues that makes this novel work so beautifully well.

The key thing that makes the novel come alive is that for all its honesty and grounded truthfulness about the messiness of life, relationships and self-satisfaction and the elusive quest for happiness, it never quite surrenders the idea that hope has some value.

Quite a bit of value in fact.

As Judy struggles to work out how to get her once fecund creativity back in the land of the living and resuscitate her relationships with pot-hungry Gary and non-communicative Teddy, all while spending with her best and only friend Glenn whose death will be another cruel blow in a long line of them, Separation Anxiety never once surrenders to the sense that hope is a stupid luxury barely worth entertaining anymore.

“But I don’t want to hear any of that. My son doesn’t want to go away with me. My husband has a girlfriend. My best friend is dying. I’ll never be Sari Epstein. Haven’t I suffered enough for one day?” (P. 132)

In fact, during an ever-escalating series of events during which Judy makes some dubious decisions and gets lost in the forest of her own addled perspective – in that respect she is very human and very every person since who of us hasn’t stumbled with no idea of an eventual destination at some point or another, or, gasp, all the time – Separation Anxiety remains full of compassion, insight, care and understanding, and quite a bit of smile-inducing situational humour.

It recognises, and Zigman articulately this and so many other things with heartfelt honesty and gleeful hilarity, that none of us ever get right and that while the way forward may seem obvious to others, action can only really be taken when it becomes obvious to us.

That, of course, takes Judy much of the novel to achieve, and to be honest, by the final wonderful page (which you will be sad to arrive at) she’s really only at the beginning of some kind of still undefined renewal but she does get there as we do we all and watching her and those in her orbit, old and new, get to that point is one of the supreme delights of this wholly lovely, real, honest and humourously life-affirming book.

The truth is, none of us ever get things totally or even partially right and we lose perspective just when we need it most, something Zigman seems to understand implicitly because Separation Anxiety is never less than a substantially meaningful and truthful appraisal of life in all its poorly-lived glory that comes coupled with the hopeful idea that maybe, just maybe, we’ll figure things out enough to make them work again, at least enough to be bearable, and life might re-assume some of its once golden, hopeful glow.

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