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Review of "A Special Relationship," a novel by Douglas Kennedy

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By Sybil Steinberg
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 9:10 PM

Already a bestseller in England and France, Douglas Kennedy's "A Special Relationship" begins with a promising romance and ends in a seesaw courtroom drama. In between, it manages to sensitively portray the weighty subject of postpartum depression.

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The plucky narrator, Sally Goodchild (the name is sledgehammer-ironic), is pushing 40, on assignment in Cairo for a Boston paper, when she meets British journalist Tony Hobbs on an emergency trip to Somalia. Tony is charming and reckless, though reticent about his personal life, which Sally attributes to his English heritage.

When Sally becomes pregnant after a short affair with Tony, the pair decide to marry and return to London, where Tony accepts a new assignment at his newspaper. Sally finds a job, too, but is forced to resign when her pregnancy takes an ominous turn, propelling her into the hospital until her son is born in a premature, and dicey, delivery.

Intensely worried that baby Jack has suffered brain damage during delivery, Sally descends into a classic postnatal depression. Violent mood swings, hysterical crying and insomnia continue to plague her once she and Jack come home, but Tony, who has pleaded overwork and frequent assignments abroad during Sally's hospital stay, is now too preoccupied with the novel he's writing to relieve Sally of baby-tending chores. Pushed to her emotional limits, Sally calls his office and tells his secretary that unless he comes home immediately, "I'm going to kill our son." She doesn't, of course, but the threat is a bad move that will haunt her once Tony's real agenda is revealed and Sally is forced to fight for her child.

While some readers may find Sally's postpartum ordeal too graphic, it's a buildup to some jolting plot twists and a suspensefully detailed courtroom battle. American-born Londoner Kennedy adds intrinsic interest to the narrative by demonstrating how the English social welfare and legal systems differ from ours. He endows Sally with a sharp eye for cultural markers, especially the differences between American and English ways of experiencing the world: Brits exist on "pragmatic pessimism," while Yanks tend to "embrace that old hoary fighting spirit," Sally observes, one of many such asides that illuminate the temperamental abyss between our two countries.

Like the heroines of Kennedy's previous books, "Leaving the World" (2009) and "The Pursuit of Happiness" (2010), Sally is drawn with empathy and insight, an admirable woman who surmounts marital instability and professional setbacks to forge an independent life.

Steinberg was Forecasts editor of Publishers Weekly.

A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP

By Douglas Kennedy

Atria. 411 pp. Paperback, $16


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