That is not actually my life. At least, it’s not my words describing my life. The life being described is that of Mary Beth Latham, the main character in Anna Quindlen’s devastating 2010 novel, “Every Last One.” But by the time I had read those words, which open the novel, I was hooked. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn that Quindlen had been in my house and in my head during my own pre-dawn rituals.
I had a similar reaction the first time I read a Harlan Coben novel. I can’t remember which one, but early on it features an innocuous scene of a conversation among parents and kids at a playground in a New Jersey suburb. Damn ed if it didn’t mirror countless conversations I had had on playgrounds. Again, I was hooked. I wanted to read a book that seemed to get me, my life, my kids.
It turns out these types of books have their own genre: domestic thrillers. They take recognizable characters in seemingly ordinary lives and with one misstep, one twist of fate, these everyman characters are hurled into a vortex of unspeakable circumstance.
The latest standout in this category is this year’s “Defending Jacob” by William Landay, which has appeared on the bestseller lists of The Washington Post, the New York Times and USA Today. The Jacob of the title is the 14-year-old son of a Massachusetts prosecutor who finds himself accused of murdering a classmate.
He’s a 14-year-old boy who is withdrawn and at times monosyllabic, but doesn’t that describe most 14-year-old boys? How much should his parents, Andy and Laurie Barber, really worry about their child? It’s just a phase, right?
In “Every Last One,” Questions just like those plague Mary Beth and Glen Latham, the proud parents of a daughter about to go to college and twin 15-year-old sons. One is athletic and outgoing, the other is dubbed “Max the Mute.” Quindlen writes about Max attending his brother’s soccer game: “Max is sitting with his knees apart, his head down, his arms wrapped around his midsection. He is wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the hood up. I think it makes him look like a terrorist.”
How many parents reading those words — written long before Trayvon Martin tragically became a household name — muttered under their breaths, “Me, too.”
That’s why these books sell millions of copies. They mirror back to us the fears we have as parents, especially the fears for our teenagers. Intellectually, we know they will probably be okay. We’ve given them the advantages of good schools, carpools, extracurricular activities. We know their friends, their friends’ parents. Our kids are good kids, we say. Part affirmation. Part furtive prayer.
But then something like Columbine or Trayvon happens, and we feel — perhaps irrationally but no less honestly — that our perfectly constructed lives teeter on a razor’s edge.
In a recent Boston Globe interview, Landay attributed the success of “Defending Jacob” to those very real fears. “The anxieties and fears Jacob’s family feels are the worries every parent feels. We all worry that we don’t know our children, especially when they become teenagers and more secretive.”
In essence, these books are the teen-parent equivalent of the Beltway wreck. We don’t want to look, but we can’t help ourselves.
Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.