Dear Edie, I wanted you to know so many things. I wanted to tell you them in person, as you grew. But it wasn’t to be.
Laura Pearson’s third novel, I wanted You to Know, focuses on Jess McKinley, a woman who never imagined that she’d be a single mother, much less while battling breast cancer.
When she receives the devastating diagnosis, Jess’s life is interrupted by worried looks, heavy conversations, and the possibility of leaving her daughter to grow up without her. Jess knows that because of her circumstances, she has to tell her daughter everything. How to love, how to lose, how to forgive, and, most importantly, how to live when you never know how long you have to do so.
I Wanted You to Know is a love letter to life — to all the heartaches, beauty, the people we love and lose, and the memories and moments that define us.
“No one expects their body to turn on them just when they are busy creating new life.” But for author Laura Pearson, that’s exactly what happened. She was thirty-five years old and five months pregnant with her second child when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Already the mother of a two-and-a-half -year-old boy, she was able to undergo surgery while pregnant and commence chemotherapy after delivering her daughter. Throughout the ordeal, she wondered whether she would survive. “Whether I would get to be her mother at all.” She contemplated what she could leave her children, neither of whom would remember her, if she succumbed, and “what they would need if they didn’t have a mother.” Inspired by her own experience, she penned I wanted You to Know, a deeply moving, often difficult to read, fictional account of a young woman in the same predicament.
Jess McKinley is a mere twenty-one years old and has only been a mother for a handful of weeks. She expects to hear that the lump she found in her breast is nothing more than a clogged milk duct, and be assured it is nothing to worry about. Instead, the doctor announces that tests have revealed “evidence of breast cancer.” Cancer was a word “that meant nothing to her. That she read in books, or heard in conversations or on the TV, that she thought was synonymous with being old and with dying. She wouldn’t have guessed, could never have guessed, that it would become a part of her life like this, so soon.”
Jess is a single mother, living with her own single mother. Her father was never really part of her life, and her mother, Caroline, has always made her disdain for and disappointment in Jess’s father clearly known. Jess’s relationship with Jake, the father of little Edie, ended when she told him she was pregnant. They haven’t communicated since then, and he is touring with his band, hoping to find success in the music industry. When Jess learns the news, she struggles with telling her mother and her best friend, Gemma. The two women comprise her support network, and without them, Jess would be facing an uncertain future completely on her own.
As the book opens, Jess is still learning how to be a mother to Edie, discovering that motherhood is “relentless, boring, and so tiring.” And yet essential because, without her, Edie would not survive. In light of her diagnosis, she contemplates getting in touch with Jake, who has never met Edie. In fact, he doesn’t know the baby’s gender . . . or even if the child was born healthy. Caroline makes no secret of her disapproval.
Jess determines to write letters to Edie which she will leave with Gemma to deliver to Edie when she is old enough to read them. Pearson intersperses the letters with the third-person narrative through which she relates Jess’s story. Each letter begins with “I wanted you to know . . .” and Jess relates the details about her relationship with Jake, her fear of leaving Edie and the reality that death itself is not what is most frightening, the fact that she is more than and not defined by cancer, and that being a mother is the most difficult thing Jess has ever done, but also the best. She shares her lack of self-confidence about mothering, and advises Edie about how to deal with cancer, should she ever need to do so. She also tells Edie, “I wanted you to know about love.”
Edie, you’re my love. My big love. And Ill do anything I can to make sure I’m here to look after you. But if I can’t do that, I’ll make everything right for you for when I’m gone. I’ll make sure you’re always looked after by people who love you.
Pearson’s story is heart-wrenching because of Jess’s realistic, pragmatic approach to her circumstances. The depiction of the mother-daughter relationship between Caroline and Jess is particularly compelling. The parallels between Jess’s life and her mother’s serve to both strengthen and threaten their bond. Jess ponders what her mother must have thought when she found herself two years into her college studies, pregnant, and the father of the child out of the picture. “It was history repeating itself, wasn’t it?” The two women share disappointments, anger, and a history of not communicating their true feelings effectively — a pattern that no longer serves them. They rise to the challenge of working out their feelings while they still have time, but not without difficulty or new anger and resentments. Each loves the other boundlessly which makes their journey easier and, at the same time, exquisitely complicated because their remaining time together is short. Jess, now a mother herself, finally understands what her mother meant all those times she told Jess that she would always be her baby. Thus, Jess works at being cognizant of and sensitive to Caroline’s feelings, but must also articulate her own needs, as well as how she wants her daughter to be raised.
Equally engrossing is Jess’s struggle to understand her own part in the failure of her relationship with Jake and forgive — herself, Jake, and her mother. She realizes how much her mother’s feelings about the own father projected onto and permeated her relationship with and expectations of Jake. She knows that she must deal with Jake on his own terms and learn to trust him for the sake of their daughter.
Jess’s unconditional friendship with Gemma is at the very heart of the story. The two have known each other since they were young students in the same school, and have grown up together. Their shared memories of so many firsts and visions of a future they always believed would be much lengthier bring strength to them both, as does Gemma’s unwavering determination to stand by Jess and see that her wishes are fulfilled. Gemma’s support and presence is precisely what Jess needs. “Just pure, simple love.”
Pearson inspires readers to question their own mortality and the choices they would make in a situation similar to Jess’s. She relates that as she wrote the book, she didn’t realize it would end up being a “love letter to friendship, to women, to life.” But that’s exactly what I wanted You to Know is. It is a story about empowerment and resolve under the worst imaginable circumstances. It is a testament to resilience and courage when there are very few choices left to be made. And a story about the beauty of surrendering and trusting those we love and who love us in return so that we can find peace and accept that which we cannot change. And so, as Pearson notes, it is both “a celebration and a tale of loss.”
Pearson again demonstrates what a courageous and powerful, yet restrained writer she is. Her insightful and deft handling of the subject matter elevates I Wanted You to Know into a category all its own. It’s a believable, thought-provoking examination of a young woman who maintains her dignity, and discovers and voices her truth in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Yet again, Pearson shows that she is capable of tackling the most difficult topics with insight, credibility, and compassion.
My reviews of Laura Pearson’s other books:
Guest posts by Laura Pearson:
- (Some of) the Books that Shaped Me
- Sending Your Second Novel into the World
- On Surviving and Writing Cancer
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