Everyone has had a moment — or several — when they contemplated running away from home: just turning one’s back on everyone and everything, and disappearing for a while or even forever. But then the dream ends, reality intrudes, and we carry on, honoring our commitments to ourselves and those people who matter to us. We acknowledged that our life isn’t really horrible, focus on our blessings and formulate a plan to work through whatever was troubling us.
Not Sarah Beth Riley. She actually did it, except she didn’t depart from her home. She waited until she was in New York City with her best friend, Rachel, sitting down to lunch. Pretending to go to the ladies’ room, she arranged for the maitre d’ to deliver a note to Rachel ten minutes after her departure.
Devastated, confused, and sick with worry, Rachel finds herself alone in New York City instead of celebrating their fortieth birthdays, as she and Sarah Beth had planned. Worse, Sarah Beth beseeched her to refrain from contacting Tom, her husband of twenty years, who is at home with their three children, Jennifer, Katherine, and little Owen.
As Rachel stumbles about in a daze, she seeks assistance from NYPD officer, Michael, who urges her to report Sarah Beth’s disappearance to the authorities, but emphasizes that since Sarah Beth authored the note indicating that she left the restaurant voluntarily, foul play will not be suspected and no investigation commenced, at least for awhile. Michael reassures Rachel, urging her to carry on with the birthday celebration on her own. Perhaps Sarah Beth will decide to meet her at one of their scheduled destinations.
Sarah Beth places the life she has built on the line, in desperate need of time alone to think, reflect, and decide what she wants her future to look like, because she knows only one thing for sure: she is neither happy nor fulfilled. But will the risk pay off? How will her act of walking away from her life, even temporarily, impact her relationships with those she loves?
First-time novelist Joanne DeMaio sets the stage with an intriguing premise: Sarah Beth Riley simply gets up and walks out of a New York City restaurant, leaving her friend in a panic. Her life has become unbearable and she can think of no other way to regain her equilibrium. Leaving the woman who has been her very best friend since they were sixteen years old, she begins wandering about Manhattan, re-evaluating the choices she has made over the course of the last twenty years and pondering the direction of the second half of her life.
Meanwhile, Rachel is both furious and frightened. After all, Sarah Beth’s stunt is completely out of character, although once Rachel considers the recent past, she realizes that there were signs of Sarah Beth’s unhappiness. Still . . . nobody just abandons their best friend during a celebratory weekend that has been planned for ages. Worse, Rachel’s loyalty and dedication are severely tested when Sarah Beth asks that she not contact Tom, Sarah Beth’s attorney husband — which was Rachel’s first instinct, of course. Rachel wonders whether she can honor that request and, if so, for how long. Sarah Beth promises that she will return, but Rachel is not sure if she can or should believe that.
That unbelievable circumstance leads Rachel to Michael, a handsome forty-four-year-old native New Yorker who is patrolling Manhattan atop his trusted mare, Maggie. Michael is instantly beguiled by Rachel and goes far beyond the call of duty to calm and assist her, finding himself increasingly drawn to her as the hours pass and Sarah Beth remains missing.
From the outset, Rachel is the more likable of the two lead female characters. Widowed a year earlier when her husband, Carl, suffered a massive heart attack, Rachel has survived the loss and resumed living, something that Sarah Beth seems incapable of accomplishing. Rachel is extremely close to her only daughter, Ashley, who is about to head off to college. Although it has been difficult for Rachel because she and Carl had a strong marriage, she has become a substitute fifth-grade teacher and continued sketching as a hobby. She is talented and grounded, unlike Sarah Beth who, DeMaio reveals, is still reeling from the sudden loss of her mother as a result of a brain aneurysm.
Many readers will initially find Sarah Beth self-centered and self-indulgent. What kind of friend leaves someone they care about sitting in a restaurant and disappears? DeMaio skillfully reveals, with the action alternating in subsequent chapters between Rachel’s experiences and those of Sarah Beth, a woman on the verge of emotional collapse. Sarah Beth is not unkind, but she is overwhelmed by the demands of her husband, — theirs is a thoroughly conventional, traditional marriage — the needs of her two daughters, and the unplanned pregnancy that left her and Tom beginning to parent all over again with little Owen when she was thirty-eight years old and thought she was done with all that entails. Worse, she and her mother had planned to open an antiques store when Sarah Beth turned forty, but Owen’s birth and her mother’s death derailed that dream. Sarah Beth is mired in the routines and obligations of domesticity. In the throes of an emotional meltdown, she has begun sending emails to her dead mother, professing her confusion, grief, and sense of helplessness. DeMaio’s compassionate, nonjudgmental portrayal of Sarah Beth gradually humanizes her and turns her into an empathetic character. Aspects of Sarah Beth’s distress are highly relatable, including her questioning what her life might have been like had she chosen differently when she was young and accepted her French boyfriend’s invitation to live with him in Europe, pursuing a life filled with art and adventure.
Michael has endured his own troubles and is grappling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as the aftermath of divorce and the challenges of parenting a teenage daughter. Both he and his relationship with Rachel are endearing and their story has an air of authenticity that elevates the story through DeMaio inclusion of a likable and strong male character who is also coping with loss and grief. Tom is equally compelling, particularly because he is earnest and well-meaning, but thoroughly confused by his wife’s behavior. He gradually evolves from making demands and issuing ultimatums out of fear and frustration to understanding the depth of Sarah Beth’s despair, proving that he truly loves and is committed to her as he battles to hold his family together.
Although Whole Latte Life strains credulity at the outset, DeMaio wins readers over with believable dialogue and even pacing. As Rachel and Sarah Beth’s friendship hangs in the balance, so do the women’s relationships with the men in their lives. The two women have always been able to talk about anything, but Sarah Beth’s behavior threatens their strong bond and, to DeMaio’s credit, she does not subject their friendship to a quick fix. By making the women work to regain their strong friendship, DeMaio lends further credence to her story about the search for meaning in one’s life, grief’s capacity to cripple one who is vulnerable, and the inherent need to feel connected to and appreciated by those with whom we spend our lives. It is a story worth reading when in a “what if . . .?” mood because DeMaio competently demonstrates how a chance meeting, a turn of events, an unexpected circumstance can change the course of one’s life in remarkable fashion, as well as how many blessings are gained through adversity. Whole Latte Life is a promising debut that bodes well for DeMaio’s future as an author of the kinds of tales about the resiliency and importance of female friendships that women, in particular, find relevant and poignant.