BETWEEN HERE & APRIL by Deborah Copaken Kogan

KoganThis month's EDIWTB book club pick was Between Here and April, by Deborah Copaken Kogan. It is about Lizzie, a mom and former war journalist in her 30s with two young daughters living in New York City with her husband. When the book opens, she has started having flashbacks about a classmate from first grade who disappeared a few months into the school year. At the time, Lizzie didn't investigate, or even question, her friend's absence, but when she starts experiencing panic attacks, she links them to thoughts about her friend's fate. The rest of the book explores Lizzie's investigation into her classmate April's death, her relationships with her husband and her mother, and an unresolved relationship with an Italian photojournalist with whom she used to be involved.

There is a lot in Between Here and April to recommend it. Deborah Copaken Kogan hits the nail on the head throughout the book in her depiction of modern marriage and childraising, including the neverending politics surrounding the division of labor in the household and the struggles facing working moms. I also found her descriptions of some of the mother-daughter relationships in this book to be very poignant, almost painful at times. The trust that young children place in their parents and their eternal belief that their parents are good people and that they love them – this theme comes up again and again in Between Here and April.

Here is a passage I liked a lot, from the beginning when Lizzie is waiting in the bathroom line at a theater:

And as I stood there in line and waited, mentally transforming each woman in front of me into a giant uterus, giving birth to other girls, other uteruses, telescoping out one by one from the original like the matrioshka dolls Tess used to love to split open and toss about the living room floor, heads rolling under couches, torsos under chairs, which every night I carefully gathered and reassembled, so that she could scatter them once again, I thought about all those mother and mothers-to-be, chugging along, finding detours around all those inconveniences and compromises that would have to be weighed and measured and fought over and swallowed while the men went about their business, zip-release-zip, unhampered and unfettered, along the conveyor belts of their lives.

Ultimately, though, I found this book to have a few flaws. First, almost everyone in the book has a mother who either killed herself, attempted to kill herself, suffered from serious depression, or died young (Mark, Renzo, Lizzie, April, Adele, even Lizzie's kids at one point…). The parallels between all of these motherless children seemed a bit forced to me. The theme was almost too relentless. If Copaken Kogan's point is that every mother experiences these feelings at some point, I think she could have made it with more subtlety.  

Second, there was just too much in here. Lizzie's awful experience in Bosnia seemed unnecessary, and the fact that she had never sought therapy for it (nor told her husband about it) was unthinkable. Add the bondage sex theme to the mix, along with its implications for male-female power in relationships, and it just felt like the author was trying too hard. Infidelity, depression, work-family balance, war, rape, marriage – that's a lot to cover in under 300 pages. The book would have been just as powerful without some of the additional layers.

All that said, I enjoyed reading Between Here and April. Copaken Kogan's statements about motherhood – some of the darkest and most honest out there – are moving, and make a strong case for paying attention to post-partum depression and depression in general.

Thank you again to Algonquin for supplying the books for this month's book club. I look forward to reading everyone's comments below!

20 Comments

  • February 1, 2010 - 8:32 am | Permalink

    I think I enjoyed the book more than you did! LOL! I did think there was a lot in this book (maybe too much) but I thought it was an excellent pick for a book club. There are, without a doubt, loads of things to discuss; and I think that was the appeal for me — just so much to delve into. While I didn’t personally relate to Elizabeth all the time, I did feel as if lots of women could. From the secrets, to feeling trapped and isolated at the same time in her marriage, to her need to resolve issues both with her mother and with her daughters, I think she had many of the same issues of women I know. (Although I admit now that I read your assessment, maybe the author did try to tackle too much.)
    I really think it would be interesting to talk about what makes some women “snap” while others are able to pull themselves back from the edge. Is it something inside/strength or lack thereof? Is it some sort of external support? Is it a chemical imbalance? I just wonder every time I head about a woman who kills her children.
    Here’s my review:
    http://bookingmama.blogspot.com/2010/02/review-between-here-and-april.html

  • February 1, 2010 - 8:35 am | Permalink

    First of all, I really enjoyed this book overall, and want to thank Algonquin for supplying the books!
    I thought it was a great read and a really interesting perspective on motherhood (coming from a woman who isn’t a mother herself). Having a psychology background, it was depressing to see how little attention was initially paid to post partum depression, and frustrating to see instead a reliance on pills that dulled the emotions.
    I agree, though, that it was all a little too much. I think the exploration into depression, motherhood and struggles for identity would have made a fine novel, and Lizzie’s Bosnia experience seemed out of place. Combine that with her husband’s penchant for bondage and it just seemed contrived.

  • Carol
    February 1, 2010 - 8:46 am | Permalink

    I just finished another book, East of the Sun, where one of the main characters keeps secrets from her friends, just as Elizabeth keeps what happened to her in Bosnia to herself. The decision to hide her past from those who care about her was disastrous for both characters. So an interesting question is do true friends–including spouses–force a friend to share a secret even if it could be painful, or does a true friend let a person share only she wants???
    I enjoyed the book–thanks, Gayle, for selecting it–but I also think there were a few too many themes thrown into the mix.

  • February 1, 2010 - 9:07 am | Permalink

    I had hoped to have this read by today, but it just didn’t happen. From the sounds of it, I need to read it soon, though.

  • February 1, 2010 - 9:26 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed the book as well. It had a lot of thoughtful insights into family dynamic and the way that children can sense that there is an issue with a parent and work to put things right when they are younger and maybe lose trust and withdraw trust as they aged.
    I didn’t like Mark very much because of his willingness to force bondage on a wife who had already made efforts in this area to please him. For him to not take any of his wife’s feeling on the matter or being willing to compromise said a lot about him and his selfishness and how he viewed his wife.
    I agree with you that there were plenty issues just dealing with that without the addition of the rape. But after knew about the rape, her muted and passive responses to her husband were a little baffling. It’s possible that she went right back to that place. I do see how she could choose to keep something like that a secret especially since she might have felt that she would have been blamed for doing such dangerous work in the first place.
    Overall I think that the author was a little heavy handed in having every character in the book have such severe mommy issues. While it’s entirely possible that such damaged people could have all found their way to each other all the parallels did strain plausibility but I felt like the strength of the writing and the story mitigated those factors for me to a certain extent and I enjoyed the story.
    I agree with Sarah that being able to see the way post partum depression was disregarded or unknown at the time was fascinating.

  • February 1, 2010 - 10:03 am | Permalink

    I saw a review of this on Julie’s blog (Booking Mama) and it piqued my interest. I may have to check it out, despite the flaws you pointed out.

  • February 1, 2010 - 10:10 am | Permalink

    Carol, I think you pose a great question. . . how much do we reveal to our closest friends and partners. Often, confession is used as way to draw closer to another. I think feeling that we trust someone enough to reveal something is really important. I wonder if Lizzie felt she would betray her intimacy with Renzo by revealing what had happened to her new husband. In some ways, it seems that she wants to maintain that closeness with Renzo, or at the least is still ambivalent about her relationship with him. However, I agree that the whole bondage thing could have been handled better. It certainly makes sens why she’s averse, but it’s tougher to see why she just won’t level with her husband. Perhaps some clues to what had happened could have been planted sooner. I just got the feeling that she wasn’t “into” it. A subtle flashback or allusion to the rape could have made that more believable.
    Overall, I enjoyed the book, but wasn’t sure how I felt about the complicated, multi-genre plotting. However, it did like it enough to seek out more info about the author. I would like to read her memoir “Shutterbabe” now.

  • February 1, 2010 - 10:21 am | Permalink

    Thanks to Gayle and Algonquin for the opportunity to read and review this book.
    I could not agree more with Gayle’s assessment: everything that was on my mind as I finished the book (at 7 AM this morning!) is reflected in Gayle’s review, though she articulated it better than I could. With every single character having mom issues, I couldn’t keep them all straight (the specific situations with their mothers, not the characters themselves). The Bosnia scene was superfluous (quite honestly there was no need for the author to provide a material reason for why the protagonist didn’t love bondage!) and the bondage part itself seemed a little improbable to me.
    All in all, I think the premise for the book is terrific. I just think the writing and plotting were too often artless and lacking in subtlety. At times it was as if there were neon lights flashing: “Note parallellism! Note symbolism!” And as a writer, I resent it when athors take the easy way out by advancing a plot through implausible events, even if trivial: a single neighbor who says “Here, take the keys to my cabin (you won’t need directions even though you haven’t been there in five years), and while you’re at it, take my only car as well!”
    I’m still glad I read it, though. It gave me a lot to think about.

  • Sarah
    February 1, 2010 - 12:12 pm | Permalink

    On the whole, I didn’t like this book very much. The one part I thought was quite compelling was the portrayal of Adele. Kogan did an excellent job of contextualizing Adele’s depression. She beautifully illustrated the lack of understanding surrounding postpartum depression, and hormonally induced depression in general, in the 1970s. As the book went on, especially at the end, where Elizabeth is making her best guess as to what transpired during Adele’s last few days, I could genuinely feel Adele’s despair, and was even convinced as to why she would kill her daughters along with herself.
    I was much less satisfied with Kogan’s portrayal of Elizabeth and her own issues. I found her description of Elizabeth and Mark’s marital problems to be mundane, and the revelation of Elizabeth’s rape was implausible. I don’t believe that there is any way she could go through something so horrific (when pregnant, no less), not share it with her husband, and then not go completely insane dealing with her husband’s role playing in the bedroom. While she certainly had major issues with her husband and his bondage fantasies, I don’t think she would have been able to indulge him (even a little), without having a nervous breakdown, given what she went through.
    I was also bothered by Elizabeth’s pregnancy at the end of the book. Are we supposed to infer that she and Mark are doing the “let’s have a third child and see if we can save this marriage?” exercise? Again, too banal.
    Ultimately this book was too sensational for my liking. That said, I’m glad I read it, and thank Gayle and Algonquin for the opportunity to read it.

  • Melissa
    February 1, 2010 - 12:13 pm | Permalink

    So much about this book to talk about – there was ALOT to absorb and process, I had a hard time wondering where the real story was. I had no problem finishing it – there was so much going on that it was very hard to put down!
    Overall, the whole war correspondent storyline was unnecessary – sure it contributed to some of her problems that warranted therapy, but I would have liked to hear more about the whole search for the truth about April and trying to work out problems with her husband. MY LORD that husband – wow! I was so angry with him throughout the entire book. NO means no, yes even when you’re married buddy!(I’ll never understand how S&M adds to intimacy in marriage or a relationship, but I’ll move on.)
    I kept thinking throughout the book that this woman KNEW she had issues with motherhood, her life, her husband and she wasn’t very keen on doing much about it except staring off into space and wondering about a friend she knew when she was in grade school. I didn’t find it believable that the loss of this friend so many years ago was somehow related to her problems at her present age – especially when so much about the incident was unknown when it was supposedly surfacing in her life during the book. She didn’t know about how bad April’s mother’s problems were in the beginning of the book and I don’t think the two marriages were completely comparable either.
    The idea of her with her kids in the freezing cold in some cabin in the middle of nowhere to find herself was unreal as well. It seemed she had a pretty charmed life with her husband and children till then – what about her marriage and children were so comparable to April’s mother, whom she just learned about in a few days? It still doesn’t make sense to me.
    At the end of the book, I was still left with questions – as desperate as her situation was made to be, I found it hard to beleive that everything was magically being resolved at the end of the book.
    As with others, thanks to Gayle and Algonquin for the book and the chance to review!!

  • February 1, 2010 - 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I wondered, in reading this, about the connections between the real-life events that inspired this book and the actual writing of it and the characters involved. And how much of this was taken from the author’s life. Like others have said, it felt entirely too heavy handed to me in terms of the mommy issues and also this expectation that all mothers are unwillingly in this role. I’m not a mom so maybe I don’t really have an accurate perspective, but surely all mothers don’t feel so perpetually burdened by their children that they’re seeking out self-medication, self-harm, or death?
    The other issue I had with the book was that the research Lizzie did in the novel didn’t feel at all reflective of the final product. It felt like she was just making it up and I found real issue with that. She was clearly placing her own history and her own issues into the story, but when you write something like that final product with the presumption that it’s true, filling in the blanks like that feels dishonest. I hate to say that didn’t really enjoy this because there were moments that I did like, but overall the gaps and the problems were too difficult to overcome.

  • February 1, 2010 - 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I really liked the book. There were definitely a few slow parts, and I also thought it tried to cover too many topics (post-partum, marriage, infidelity, secrets, oppression, parenting) — but I thought it was interesting. I’m sure I have a different perspective since I don’t have kids yet. I do think that the end of the book wrapped up a little too neatly/quickly, especially considering how much detail had been in the book beforehand.
    The character of Adele’s sister was a little overkill — too in your face to make a point. I think that names played a big role in the book as well — all the different names for Elizabeth (Lizzie, Zabs, Mon Eliza, Eliza, etc.), each dependent on the relatonship to that person and their perception of her (and of her perception of herself maybe).
    I thought that Adele’s story in the 1970’s was very sad but probably true. Even today I would say that most people do not understand post-partum depression (especially filicide), and it’s still a taboo subject I think.
    I did really like the push-and-pull aspect of Mark and Elizabeth’s marriage in regards to household duties. The part where she is trying to talk to him while he’s asking her if she can pick up his dry cleaning (while she’s traveling) and then the cupcake scene after was so realistic.
    Overall, a great book club book. Thanks to publisher and Gayle!

  • Miriam
    February 1, 2010 - 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to Algonquin and Gayle for the chance to read this thought provoking book. On the front cover it says “the perfect book club book” and I thought “yeah right” but I do think that applies!!!
    So much in this book. I thought it would be a depressing read but I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next. I do think the author was too ambitious in the themes and the bondage senario between Lizzie and her husband was hard to take. He was a piece of work, wasn’t he? And the stress that motherhood places on women was so true to life. We all felt that at a gut level.
    Thus said I did like the ending even thought the book had its flaws. It was a satisfying read and I kept thinking about it. Also want to recommend it- maybe to my book club. I know I am not finished talking about it.
    So are we to believe that Renzo and his wife name their baby after Lizzie? What a twist at the end.
    Amazing story and all in all, quite a read.
    Ambitious and great plot.

  • Susan
    February 1, 2010 - 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I really liked this book, however at times felt overwhelmed by all of the themes. I felt the bondage Mark imposed on Lizzie and the Bosnia rape episode were too much and unnecessary.
    As a mother of three girls, I was mostly intrigued by the parts written about Adele. I found it appalling (but I’m sure true) that her post-partum depression was so easily dismissed. The part I found most intriguing was Adele killing her daughters with her. On the surface she coudl be considered a monster, and though she was in a desperate and hopeless state of mind, I could see why she took her girls with her. I have always held to the belief that the strongest bond is between mother and child/children and that no matter how old your children are, the umbilical cord is never fully cut.
    Overall I enjoyed this book and thank Gayle and Alongonquin for the opportunity to read it.

  • February 1, 2010 - 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for letting me join in on the club!
    I did like this book. A lot. The topic of mothering and the emotions we put into it, or rather, emotional issues that prevent us from mothering like we feel we should was well explored. But like some have pointed out – maybe too well explored. It would have been nice to have a mother character that didn’t have unresolved mothering/emotional issues.
    And the rape – while it helped to explain possible sexual relations issues with her husband, was probably a bit over done. But, not talking to her husband about this also reinforces the part of the point of talking/communicating. Whether it be hormonal based, mother based, rape based. These women didn’t feel comfortable communicating what was bothering them. And, becuase each person has a different breaking point, each broke at different points and in different ways.

  • Amy W.
    February 1, 2010 - 4:31 pm | Permalink

    This was a very readable book; great pacing, gripping plotline. The author’s insight into motherhood, childhood and relationships was powerful. I have so many pages dogeared so I can come back to some quotes that really touched/stayed with me. I enjoyed the writing style, though I agree with many comments above that there was a lot going on. But isn’t that life? There’s always so much going on, and it’s often the things that we don’t know about other people and their experiences that make things happen as they do in all kinds of relationships.
    It wrapped up a bit neatly for my taste (Mona Lisa…really?), but in all, I loved it. Thanks Gayle and Algonquin!

  • Heather
    February 1, 2010 - 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Although I also didn’t personally relate to Lizzie all the time, Copaken Kogan painted an honest portrayal of motherhood in many ways. It was the smaller day to day struggles that I felt rang so true. What working mother has not been stretched to meet the expectations of her husband and children – and indeed the deadlines of “cupcake day”?
    The memories of April that surface for Elizabeth and her investigation to understand “what happened” are compelling in many ways. For me the window in to the 1970’s was particularly real. The portrayal of postpartum depression and Adele’s struggle seemed very realistic and incredibly sad.
    A number of people have already mentioned some of the challenges of this book. The repetition and lack of subtlety were at times distracting. I had a hard time getting in to the last few chapters, but was very glad that I persevered and finished.
    I was left with a number of questions. For one – was Mark made to be so unlikeable and one-dimensional on purpose?
    I am sure I will come back to re-read some passages. Thank you Gayle and Algonquin for the opportunity to read this book.

  • Lindsay
    February 1, 2010 - 10:04 pm | Permalink

    First, thanks to Gayle and Algonquin for this book. I very much enjoyed reading it (and it certainly was a quick read), but had many issues with the story and the characters as other reviewers did. There were some excellent lines about marriage, even though I felt annoyed by many of the ways Mark and Lizzie interacted with each other. I was also frequently bothered by the way Lizzie lived life without seeming concern about her kids. I felt very anxious about her girls throughout the books, which I didn’t like. Perhaps that was part of the author’s intent. On the whole, though, I enjoyed the book and the ending. I would be interested in what ways the story was rooted in truth for the author. I think I may also read Shutterbabe. Looking forward to Gayle’s next pick – they are always a good read!

  • February 3, 2010 - 12:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you to everyone who has participated in this conversation! I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. This is a great book for discussion, because everyone seems to get something different out of it. And I am glad that so many of you enjoyed reading it.

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