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Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt

(Allen & Unwin, $35)

Caroline Leavitt’s novel Pictures of You starts with a bang, literally. Isabelle Stein has left her home, and her cheating husband and is driving away through the fog when she crashes into a woman standing on the road alongside her car.

The other woman, April Nash, is killed, but her young son, Sam, survives. April’s husband Charlie is not only devastated by the tragic loss of his wife, but bewildered by why she was miles away from their Cape Cod home with their son and a suitcase in the car. And why was she standing on the road?

Charlie realises there was a lot he didn’t know about April and struggles with his grief while trying to be strong for Sam. Meanwhile, a shattered Isabelle is also trying to pick up the pieces of her life. Their paths cross again thanks to Sam, who forms a bond with Isabelle that may seem unlikely but is totally believable.

Fragile Sam’s life has already been blighted by severe asthma and now the aftermath of the death of his mother threatens to swamp everyone.

Caroline Leavitt suffered from asthma as a child and her understanding of this condition is evident in the insightful way she writes about Sam’s health battles. She’s also dealt with her own share of tragedy – her fiancé died of a heart attack in her arms two weeks before they were due to be married – and her descriptions of grief are deeply moving.

She’s a gifted writer and creates characters who are flawed and selfish, yet endearing. It’s a riveting story too, with lots of questions: Where was April going? Why won’t Sam talk about what happened?

But don’t expect loose ends to be tied up and everyone to live happily ever after. The characters are as unpredictable as people are in real life and that is one of the strengths of this book.

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