Synopses & Reviews
Where can a woman turn when her own life threatens to overwhelm her ability to keep her children safe? New York Times
bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard takes the readers of her newest novel on a wry and moving journey of loss and healing.
Giving advice is what Julieanne does for a living every Sunday she doles it out to clueless people she doesn't know, in a column in her local Wisconsin paper. But when it comes to her personal life, Julie herself seems to have missed some clues. Having worked creatively to keep her twenty-year marriage to Leo fresh and exciting, she is completely caught off guard when he tells her he needs to go on a "sabbatical" from their life together, leaving Julie and their three children Gabe, Caroline, and Aury behind. But it soon becomes clear that his leave of absence is meant to be permanent. The succeeding months are filled with a confusion and sadness that shake the core of the entire family. Things take a turn for the worse when Julie is diagnosed with a serious illness and the children undertake a dangerous journey to find Leo before it's too late. As the known world sinks precariously from view, the clan must navigate its way through the shoals of love, guilt, and betrayal. Together, with the help of Leo's parents and Julie's best friend, Cathy, they work their way back to solid ground and a new definition of family.
No one illuminates modern love, marriage, and parenting better than Jacquelyn Mitchard. Written with her trademark poignancy, humor, and insight, The Breakdown Lane is her most moving, eloquent,and life-affirming work yet.
"No one could blame Julieanne Gillis, beleaguered heroine of this no-holds-barred family drama by Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean, etc.) for not seeing the signs. At first her lawyer husband, Leo Steiner, seems to be in the throes of a midlife crisis, informing Julieanne that he is planning to take early retirement and go and live on a commune in upstate New York for six months. The next thing she knows, he's vanished, leaving her with three children and only her meager income from her advice column for the Sheboygan, Wis., local newspaper. To make matters worse, she's diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The narration alternates between plucky Julieanne and her 15-year-old son, Gabe, a handsome Holden Caulfieldesque loner with a mild learning disability. When things get desperate, Gabe and his 14-year-old sister, Caroline, scan their dad's old e-mails and learn where he might be. Then, during spring break, lying like troopers, the two juveniles take off by bus to find their father. Surely, they think, he'll come home when he learns that their mother is sick. He comes, but the baggage he brings along means further disaster. Leo's behavior is almost campishly craven, but the novel's soap-operatic bathos is perversely satisfying. Rousing melodrama; fluid, often funny, dialogue; and the convincing portrayal of children involved in the collapse of a marriage add up to another page-turner from Mitchard." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"An astute observer of family dynamics, Mitchard renders her characters flawlessly, endowing them with a humanity that is both accessibly grounded and astonishingly deep." Booklist
"Although this novel could have easily become a maudlin disease-of-the-month book, Mitchard...handles the various themes of abandonment, illness, and family disappointment with finesse." Library Journal
"Mitchard...has crafted a completely engaging book that is more life-affirming than depressing....The Breakdown Lane...unfolds with a compelling mix of suspense, humor, and abiding humanity." Boston Globe
"This definitely comes from the 'men are such beasts' school of writing, but I couldn't quit....What makes this book so entertaining is how funny it is particularly the sections written by Julie's teenage son, who is Holden Caulfield with a spell-checker." Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly
"From our petulant, prideful heroine to her sullen-yet-saintly son, each character's complexities shine..." Washington Post
"[Mitchard] takes emotional family events and makes something fresh yet familiar about them..." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Mitchard dissects feelings of loyalty, betrayal and guilt with such aplomb, the book moves along like a thriller." Life magazine
"The Breakdown Lane takes the reader on a journey of love and loss, self-discovery and synergy, a satisfying story..." South Florida Sun-Sentinel
When her husband decides to defect from their life together, advice columnist Julianne Ambrose Gillis must carry on alone. In his absence, Julie is diagnosed with a serious illness, which drives her children to undertake a dangerous journey to find their dad.
About the Author
Jacquelyn Mitchard is the New York Times best-selling author of Twelve Times Blessed, A Theory of Relativity, The Deep End of the Ocean, and The Most Wanted. Jackie is widely acclaimed for her literary achievements, but until now, few people have been aware that she is also a trusted one a human who has been welcomed into mouse society. It is a great honor previously bestowed on the likes of E. B. White, Benjamin Franklin, and Marie Curie. Jackie became a trusted one while still in high school by rescuing an entire family of mice from the depths of a trombone just before a performance of The Music Man. She has enjoyed the company of mice ever since, and with starring prima!, she finally realizes a long-held ambition to share her insights into mouse culture with her fellow humans. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and six children.
Reading Group Guide
- What kinds of columns does Julianne Gillis write for the Sheboygan News-Clarion? How does she get her job in the first place, and what does it eventually lead to? Why does the tone of her columns change over the course of The Breakdown Lane?
- Describe Julie and Leo's marriage: what connects them as a couple, and what distances them from each other? What do you think explains Leo's disappearance?
- What aspects of the family life described in The Breakdown Lane resonated with your own experiences? Did Jacquelyn Mitchard capture marriage, parenting, separation, pregnancy, divorce, remarriage, or adoption in a way that reminded you of some of these phases in your life?
- What unconventional help do Julie's family and friends offer her and her family during Leo's absence? What drastic and difficult economic measures must Julie make to keep her family afloat? What did you think of these compromises?
- What are some of the physical symptoms Julianne experiences prior to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis? What are some of the emotional changes she undergoes as she begins the medical course of treatment for her disease?
- How do Gabe, Caroline, and Aurora interact with each other as siblings? What do you think explains their different reactions to their mother's illness and their parents' separation?
- How does Gabe's learning disability color his perspective on life? Why does he decide to drop out of high school? How does his friendship with Tian change him?
- Describe the "hippie lifestyle" that Leo seeks. When Gabe and Caroline go looking for Leo, what do they encounter? How does what they find affect them and their relationships with their father?
- Who is Matthew MacDougall and how does Julie reconnect with him? What kind of life does her promise her and her children, and how does he fulfill that promise?
- What did you think of the end of The Breakdown Lane? How did you feel on learning that Julianne Gillis was a pseudonym?
A Conversation With Jacquelyn Mitchard
Is the real-life newspaper column you write anything like "Excess Baggage," the column Julianne Gillis with some help from her friends and family writes in The Breakdown Lane?
My column, 'The Rest of Us,' is about legal, social, economic and personal issues that affect the family. It's nothing like the advice column Julieanne writes, because, though I sometimes find myself standing unsteadily on my soapbox, I would never presume to offer advice to a general audience, only one person's opinion on a topic.
Throughout your novel, you incorporate other "texts" Julianne's column, her poetry, and Gabe's. Is The Breakdown Lane a commentary on "the writing life" and the creative process?
In a sense, yes. My friend, Ben, says that one of the perils of experiencing some success with creativity as he has, in the world of music sometimes causes a person to forget "where the song came from." It's important for me to remember that the impulse for creativity often springs from a signal event in life: a loss, a change, an unexpected hairpin turn in the road. And no one can entirely define just who can turn out to be a participant in the creative process: For example, it's assumed that a learning-disabled teenager would be inarticulate. Gabe can't always present or write down what he thinks on the first try; but he is thoughtful and witty.
Julie's family and friends come to her rescue when she is most in need. Was one of your goals in this novel to show the resilience of a nuclear family when it is confronted with serious challenges?
That, and to define how a modern-day nuclear family often is composed of friends and extended family not the traditional parent-and-child unit alone.
Did you model Julianne Gillis, a protagonist with multiple sclerosis, after anyone, in fiction or real-life?
Yes. My best friend from childhood, an actor and singer by profession, learned in her 40s that she had MS. Going through that devastating experience with her, seeing her grow in strength and acceptance, was heartbreaking and inspiring.
What kind of research of this disease did you do in preparation for the novel?
I needed to know a great deal about relapsing and remitting multiple sclerosis and how it could affect an individual almost to the point of incapacity at one point, only to offer almost a complete remission of those symptoms not long afterward. It's one of the great frustrations of the disease. I spoke to many MS sufferers, their spouses and their children, and worked to fund-raise for research in finding a way to stop this disease from crushing so many people, fifty percent more of them women than men, in the prime of life.
You examine a number of aspects of family life in The Breakdown Lane marriage, parenting, pregnancy, divorce, adoption, remarriage. Did you find yourself borrowing from any of your own experiences as a wife and mother?
Of course, yes. I have a son who has learning disabilities not unlike Gabe's, and he's my hero, while at times driving me nuts. I've been a widow, remarried, given birth to and adopted children; and I know that these experiences are a tightrope for everyone involved.
Does Julie's illness and its accompanying physical challenges enable her to relate better to her son, Gabe, who has a learning disability? What explains their deep connection?
Gabe is Julie's firstborn, and his "different" qualities have always brought forth the advocate in her. As her own physical strength weakens, she is forced to see how Gabe has suffered; and when he returns her devotion, despite her sometimes erratic behavior, she is overcome with gratitude and guilt. While she has always "understood" Gabe's inabilities in an intellectual sense, she finds herself experiencing difficulties not so different, and it is humbling. Children of parents who are disabled usually have one of two reactions an overdeveloped sense of guilt, or rejection based on fear. Gabe feels the former, especially given his anger toward his father.
You've devised The Breakdown Lane as a "frame story," with Julie Gillis as a kind of fictional stand-in for Pamela. What considerations were behind this artistic decision?
Julie is the kind of person for whom appearances are important, for better or for worse. Letting Pamela "hide" inside the story of Julie, which is true but not real, is consistent with Julie's intense privacy and pride.
When Matthew MacDougall asks her to marry him, Julie acknowledges the economic security that he offers her. In today's world, do you think women can separate their romantic and financial concerns?
I think that they can, of course, and that they must, especially given that they have more choices than our grandmothers did. All our mothers said that a rich man can be as easy to love as a poor man; and it is true that when marriages fail, the woman is often left with much more serious economic concerns than the man particularly if, like Julie, she has devoted more to her marriage and family that to her work. However, I don't think many women marry "for money," as they might have several generations ago, or simply to flee the influence of their parents. I do think that many women marry for emotional stability after they become disenchanted with the ideal of "the perfect love." Julie's set of references is different from the ordinary woman's. She is very attracted to and grateful for Matt, but she also is in desperate straits. Used to a stable life, she must consider whether she is giving in to his quick, impulsive offer because she wants security or because she truly feels they are well-matched. She knows her choice could have been a disaster. It could have gone either way. Julie could have reached for a safety net, and found that the trade-off was a superficial compatibility. Her attraction to Matt was only a rebound phenomenon. She got lucky, and she recognizes that. Taking that chance is something she would never have advised a reader to do.
What's your next project?
I'm almost finished with a novel that has begins with a very shocking premise the decision of a young and very protected girl to seek her own retribution on the man who killed her younger sisters. Finally, though, it is a story about the futility of vengeance, and what takes its place.