Julia and Michael Dunhill are fabulously successful and wealthy, living the kind of lifestyle most Americans merely dream about. They reside in a Washington, D.C. mansion and have a vacation home in Aspen, drive luxurious cars, and shop in the most exclusive boutiques and designer showrooms. After growing up humbly in West Virginia, Julia has established herself as a sought-after party planner and Michael founded his own company after developing a line of beverages. Sales soared and the profits rolled in after Oprah herself was pictured with a bottle during an interview. Julia and Michael have loved each other since they were sixteen-year-old high school students.
Julia’s father was a gambler who lost the family business and home because of his addiction, making the last year Julia lived with her parents virtually unbearable. The experience left her unwilling and emotionally unable to gamble on Michael’s dreams, so prior to eloping, they signed a simple prenuptual agreement and have always kept their financial holdings separate, including the debt Michael incurred in order to launch his company. That arrangement has never stopped Julia from enjoying the benefits of Michael’s success, however. She has a collection of beautiful jewelry that he has purchased for her over the years, and the houses were both purchased with his money and remain vested in his name only.
Just as Julia is overseeing an important event, she gets word that Michael has been rushed to the hospital. As he stood in the conference room, about to make a presentation, Michael collapsed. He suffered a cardiac arrest and was clinically dead for four minutes, eight seconds. Although Michael’s survival, sans brain damage, is nothing less than miraculous, Julia quickly realizes that the Michael who came back from death’s grip is a profoundly changed man. He plans to completely alter the manner in which they live their lives, the roadmap for their marriage and future. Without consulting Julia, Michael has made arrangements to give all of his holdings — including his company — and assets to charity! Julia is so upset and beside herself that she does not know, in light of his decision, whether she can remain married to Michael. But Michael has asked her to give him three weeks in which to consider her options and decide whether to leave him. After all, Michael tells Julia, he survived the cardiac arrest, but has no idea how much time he has left, and he is determined to change his life for the better. The only question is, can Julia accept and embrace the “new” Michael?
In her debut novel, The Opposite of Me, author Sarah Pekkannen explored the concept of assumptions within the context of the relationship between fraternal female twins. In particular, Lindsey’s assumptions about her sister, Alex, contributed to her own struggles with self-esteem and self-confidence. As the story unfolded, Lindsey learned that the assumptions — some quite erroneous — about both Alex and herself upon which she based life choices and decisions, and the very way that she viewed the world and her own place in it, had contributed to her both her successes and failures. Replacing inaccurate assumptions with the truth allowed Lindsey to see her sister differently, forge a better relationship with her, and move on with her own life.
Skipping a Beat, Pekkanen’s second book, available in bookstores today, is an equally insightful, engrossing, and entertaining exploration of the foundations upon which relationships are built. Through the eyes of Julia Dunhill, the narrator in Skipping a Beat, Pekkanen looks at how two people met, fell in love, and built a life together. Of course, the only constant in life is change, and their relationship naturally changed and evolved over the course of time as they both achieved career success. In Michael’s case, his business accomplishments far exceeded his own dreams, bringing him both wealth and the power that accompanies it. Julia achieved professional success in her own right. But as the two fretted over their businesses’ trajectories, they failed to invest as wisely in their marriage.
The story opens with Michael’s medical crisis, but the focus of the book immediately shifts to Julia’s reaction to Michael’s sudden and completely unexpected personality change. She is totally unequipped to deal with his transformation from a workaholic, driven man, consumed by the demands of the business he built with one great idea and some borrowed capital, into a man looking for redemption for all the mistakes he made along the way, many of which Julia was blissfully unaware. As the story unfolds, the foundations of Julia’s world are threatened and she quickly loses her equilibrium. Everything that she has assumed to be true and relied upon is brought into question by Michael’s sudden metamorphosis. Pekkanen establishes just how far apart Michael and Julia have drifted when Julia ventures into Michael’s separate bathroom and realizes that she is completely unfamiliar with his personal belongings — even the type of toothbrush he uses — as she attempts to pack a bag to take to him in the hospital. Julia is rattled — and extremely angry — when she realizes that the man with whom she has been living is now a stranger to her, especially as it gradually becomes obvious that Julia has either been denying or suppressing the extent to which the two of them have been estranged from each other for some time.
Julia agrees to give Michael the three weeks he has requested in order to decide whether she wants to stay with him or move on. She recalls how, as teenagers, they grew close in the small West Virginia town where they were raised, both having grown up in dysfunctional families, both scarred in their own unique ways from the pain inflicted upon them by their imperfect parents. Those early experiences were, in part, what drew them together. Their relationship was built upon the trust they felt for each other that was born out of an inability to trust or rely upon family members who let them down and abandoned them, literally and emotionally. When Julia first becomes aware of Michael, he tells her that he has always been right behind her, referring to his assigned seat in their high school classes . . . and, perhaps, the fact that he has been drawn to her for some time.
Still . . . Julia has always held back, reserved a part of herself and her assets as a safety mechanism. In particular, she was unwilling to incur debt with Michael in order to found and grow his business, keeping her own business accounts separate, even to the point of entering into a prenuptual agreement. In light of Michael’s determination to give all of his assets to charitable causes, it is indeed ironic that Julia ponders the enforceability of that agreement and resents Michael’s plan to disburse his wealth, to which she plainly feels entitled. Her desire to “have her cake and eat it too” makes her a flawed, but very authentic protagonist.
It becomes clear, as Julia considers the events of the past several years and realizes that some of her assumptions about Michael’s conduct were not accurate, that both Michael and Julia lost their footing as the demands of their careers increased. They also lost sight of the reasons they came together, and Michael seems desperate to rekindle their relationship, even as Julia struggles with her resentment and anger. She has been hurt many times by Michael, but not confronted him with her feelings, allowing grudges to fester and threaten their marriage. But Michael is persistent and, as Julia studies his behavior, she wonders what is really fueling his determination. Gradually, in spite of herself, she sees glimpses of the young man she fell in love with back in West Virginia, and the two begin ignoring their Blackberries and actually having conversations again.
Pekkanen deftly pulls readers along with Julia on her emotional journey, initially creating empathy through glimpses into the lavish and secure lifestyle the Dunhills have come to enjoy. Julia has every right to be angry, disappointed, and afraid. After all, who would want to give up a full-time maid, gardeners, drivers, and chefs? Julia particularly can’t bear the thought of losing the heated tiles in her shower or her jacuzzi tub. But through Julia’s memories and realizations, Pekkanen unveils the real Michael, the young man who rescued Julia — in so many ways — and never stopped loving her, all appearances to the contrary. Pekkanen describes her approach this way:
As Skipping a Beat opens, Julia and Michael are thrust into a crisis, and it’s unclear whether their marriage will survive. In order to move forward, they also need to look back at the decisions and moments, both big and small, that shaped their relationship. So I wove in scenes from their past to show how complicated their life together has become, and to reveal why Julia feels so conflicted. But there are two sides to every story — so even though everything is unfolding from Julia’s point of view, it’s not necessarily the complete picture. She, like the readers, discovers how much more there is to the story of her marriage.
Pekkanen’s expository technique is extremely effective. As Julia’s resistance crumbles and her anger gives way to forgiveness and healing, the reader’s understanding of the two characters’ backgrounds and foibles makes them increasingly endearing. And just as Julia cannot bring herself to turn her back on the only man she has ever loved, despite all the disappointments, loneliness, and miscommunication, Pekkanen convinces her readers that Michael and Julia truly love each other and deserve another chance at happiness. Because, after all is said and done, the foundation upon which their relationship is founded is actually still intact and next time they might be able to get it right.
Will they get the chance? Like me, you may be able to guess the ending to the Dunhills’ story, but that won’t spoil the joy of finding out if your hunches are accurate because Pekkanen proves again that she is one of the most talented new novelists writing women’s fiction today. With Michael and, especially, Julia, she has created fully developed, believable, empathetic characters about whose lives her readers want to know more and for whose futures the readers want only the best. Pekkanen has crafted a storyline that puts a new and contemporary spin on a classic theme: Does money change people and impact their relationships? Does wealth corrupt to the point that it can erode the foundation upon which a marriage is built? The result is a nuanced, emotional roller coaster that inspires readers to ponder their own relationships and the foundations upon which they are built, and contemplate whether those relationships might survive a near-death experience such as Michael’s — or any event, really — that results in such a profoundly changed outlook on life and the future.
Skipping a Beat is a beautifully powerful story about the enduring quality of love and the challenges a relationship can withstand if that relationship is founded upon genuine love, affection, and respect for one another. As with The Opposite of Me, both the story Pekkanen has told and the characters she has created will resonate with readers long after they have sniffled their way to the last page and closed the book. The Opposite of Me was one of the best books I read in 2010, and even though it is only February, I have no doubt that Skipping a Beat will be on my list of 2011 favorites. I look forward to reading more of Pekkanen’s work and strongly encourage you to do the same!