Jenna Chamberland last saw her mother healthy as she left for college. By the time she made her first trip back home, her mother was dying. Responsibility to care for their mother fell to Jenna’s sister, Sophie, with whom Jenna has had a strained relationship ever since.
Jenna and Gabe were happily married for several years, she a successful novelist and he a thriving architect, before they decided to become parents. Since becoming a mother, Jenna has known what it is like to truly love and be devoted to another human being. Her little daughter, Mia, is everything to her. In fact, when Mia was three years old, Jenna decided that she wanted another child, even though, at the age of forty-three, she knew it might be difficult. In actuality, it was impossible because that is when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
For the next three years, Jenna fought the disease with every ounce of energy she could muster. She hired Ginny, a widow with grown children, to care for Mia while she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, commuting from Port Angeles into Seattle to be treated by the best physicians available.
Tragically, the cancer has refused to go into remission and Jenna’s doctors recommend that she discontinue treatment in favor of enjoying the few remaining months of her life. They estimate that her symptoms will become debilitating in about six months or so. Determined to resume caring for Mia full-time for as long as she is able, Jenna accedes and throws herself into making the most of the time remaining. She and Gabe custom-built their beautiful home where Jenna is determined that Mia continue to feel safe, loved, and sheltered after her death in order to ease the burden of growing up without a mother.
Taking a cue from another woman in the support group she attends, Jenna determines to record a series of messages for Mia that she can play at specific points in her life. Deeming them Milestone Tapes, Jenna wants Mia to be able to hear her mother’s voice and thoughts when and if her father decides to remarry, as well as when Mia falls in love and gets her heart broken for the first time, marries, becomes a mother herself, etc.
Jenna is indeed prescient: nine years after her death, sixteen-year-old Mia could definitely benefit from having the counsel of her mother. Sadly, Jenna cannot be there to comfort and advise her, but Mia does have the tapes . . .
Reading the work of a first-time novelist is always an exciting risk. New author Ashley Mackler-Paternostro has arrived on the literary scene with little fanfare, no degree from a prestigious university, and no previous writing credits. Rather, her humble biography describes her as a “hairstylist by trade” with a lifelong love for writing and reading . . . and a dream. Her dream has come to fruition with the publication of The Milestone Tapes.
The Milestone Tapes was a work of love. A tribute to my mother; a breast cancer survivor, a story of what if, a personal and very private exercise in healing my soul. . . . I have to dedicate this moment where I’m stuck with awe to my Mom, for without her enthusiastic cheerleading and honest feedback there would be none of this. She taught me humor, grace, hope and love . . . all things you’ll find hidden within the pages of The Milestone Tapes.
The protagonist, Jenna Chamberland, is a highly successful, motivated woman with whom female readers can readily identify. She was lucky enough to marry a man with whom she has remained in love for twenty years and she put off becoming a mother until the age of thirty-seven, partly because of her own ambitions, as well as because she and Gabe were happy and content with their life as it was. However, as many career women will confirm, motherhood is a transforming experience. Because she and Gabe were secure both in their relationship and monetarily, they were able to build their dream house, establishing an idyllic setting into which to welcome Mia. Jenna immersed herself completely in raising her daughter, and had just decided that she definitely wanted to bear a second child when tragedy struck: breast cancer.
The character of Jenna is realistic, authentic, exasperating at times, and thoroughly believable. Her tenacity bears witness to her devotion to her child and determination to live for Mia’s sake. Jenna knows the pain of losing one’s mother too soon, and her relationship with her sister has suffered mightily because of the fact that Jenna had already left for college when their mother was diagnosed with cancer. Jenna will be anything — literally — not to leave her child motherless. Mackler-Paternostro devotes a substantial portion of the book to detailing Jenna’s battle and its raw emotional truth frequently makes for difficult, yet compelling, reading. It is clear that Mackler-Paternostro has witnessed such a struggle first-hand and she imbues her story with the complicated feelings that Jenna, as well as those who love her, experience. Particularly wrenching is the pain Jenna’s illness brings to Gabe, who must come to grips with the fact that he is going to lose the love of his life and must soldier on to raise his daughter alone.
The second portion of the story picks up nine years after Jenna’s death when Mia is sixteen years old. Ginny has stayed on and served as a surrogate mother to Mia, while Gabe has poured himself into his work, commuting to Seattle on a weekly basis in order to further his own career and allow Mia to remain in the home he and Jenna lovingly built. It was extremely important to Jenna that Mia’s life not be disrupted following her death and Gabe has honored her wishes.
Mia awakens each day to the sound of Jenna’s voice, keeping the tape recorder by her bed so that she can hear her mother tell her “good morning” before she rises. She relies completely on Ginny and adores her father, even though he has been an absent father much of the time due to his long commute and professional demands. Recently, Gabe has been spending more and more time in Seattle and Mia suspects that there is more keeping him there at night than his work . . . When Mia’s suspicions are confirmed, the remaining tapes are presented to her, along with instructions from her mother to listen to the tapes only at the specifically appointed times in order that they will truly resonate by coinciding with milestone events in Mia’s life. Although tempted to listen to them all, Mia complies and is glad that she does. Mia is as believable as Jenna — a good, but not perfect kid who has survived the greatest loss a child can know with her self-esteem intact. She has been sheltered and spoiled a bit, but Mia appreciates her blessings and would happily trade them all if she could only have one conversation with her mother in person, rather than have to rely upon the tapes as a means of connecting with her mother. As with the character of Jenna, Mackler-Paternostro strikes all the right notes in constructing Mia. Could it be because the author so closely identifies with the character?
Overall, The Milestone Tapes is a touching, if not entirely original story about mothers and daughters, and the myriad ways in which the unique mother-daughter bond survives and can even flourish long after death has parted them. The book is far from perfect: the pace drags significantly at several junctures, the narrative is repetitive and, because of that, too long. The story would have benefited from judicious editing in order to cure those defects, along with some continuity issues. However, it is clear that Mackler-Paternostro drew upon her own experiences and emotional scars in order to craft the tale and The Milestone Tapes attests to her promise as a novelist. It will indeed be interesting to read her sophomore effort. I hope that she lives up to the potential demonstrated in The Milestone Tapes.