I Couldn’t Love You More by Jillian Medoff (5 Spot; 432 pages; $13.99).
Cinderella had a stepmother, so did Snow White. Fairy tales, movies, and books often portray stepmothers as cruel, evil, ugly, and jealous women. In I Couldn’t Love You More, Jillian Medoff dispels stereotypes and simultaneously dazzles us through her protagonist, Eliot Gordon.
Eliot is a thirty-eight-year-old daughter, sister, mother, stepmother, and wife. But she is not married to Grant. Confused? So was I in the beginning, but it’s only semantics. Eliot refers to Grant as her “husband,” although they are not married. They have been together five years and raise three girls: Hailey, their four-year-old daughter, and Charlotte and Gail, fourteen and seven respectfully, Grant’s daughters. Grant has never asked Eliot to marry him, but they live like husband and wife. Eliot treats Charlotte and Gail as if they are her own children, especially since Beth, their mother, is flaky and clueless. Eliot loves all her girls, even the ones she did not give birth to.
Medoff tells the story from the first person perspective of Eliot. Her portrayal of Eliot is intimate. Medoff does a superb job of bringing her characters to life on these pages, but none more so than Eliot. She is very real and achingly relatable. Her strengths stand out; her flaws, though, are what really drive this story.
Eliot, by her own admission, is a “good girl.” Yes, she is. However, Eliot makes some bad decisions throughout Medoff’s story. Some condemn Eliot for her actions, while others sympathize. At its heart, this is a novel about the choices we make and their consequences, both short-term and long-term.
An old boyfriend resurfaces. The sparks fly. The presence of Finn distracts Eliot. Everyone notices, especially Charlotte. Eliot believes a week at the beach with her mother and sisters will help ease tension between her and Grant. While the girls play in the ocean, Eliot’s phone rings. It is Finn.
Her back is turned for one minute, maybe two. The unthinkable happens. Eliot is forced to make a choice: who should she save? Her real daughter? Or her stepdaughter? Medoff writes, “And this is what I know: I can swim in only one direction, toward one child…but I must make a choice and I must make it now.” Whatever the case, nothing will ever be the same again.
Despite its grim subject matter, Medoff intersperses humor throughout her novel. The hilarity in no way distracts from the story; instead, it adds to it. Sometimes, even in the grip of despair, life can be funny. Medoff makes me laugh and cry, once at the very same time. Never has mowing, pooping, or eating dog food sounded so funny. I applaud Medoff for telling the story in such a way.
Eliot is not the only character who stands out in this book. Her sister, Sylvia (named after Sylvia Plath), is often a scene-stealer. Eliot’s mother, Delores, is another of Medoff’s characters who demand your attention.
This is a story about love and family. But the novel is also about sisters. It matters little whether they are full, half, or even step. A sister is a sister for life. Medoff makes this only child wistful of the sisterly bond that Eliot and her sisters share.
I Couldn’t Love You More is women’s lit at its finest. This is a far cry from chick lit. Do not get me wrong: I am not disparaging chick lit in any way. This is a story for women. The issues Medoff writes about are subjects in which women deeply care about. This tale is about women written for women that happens to have been written by a woman.
I predict I Couldn’t Love You More will be the read of the summer. Medoff’s novel will be as essential to beach bags as sunscreen and beach towels.