Unfolding in a collection of scenes that bounce back and forth in time, and told through multiple perspectives, Ellen in Pieces could easily have been a confusing mess. Instead, in her new novel for adults, Caroline Adderson slowly and exquisitely peels back the layers of her title character’s unforgivably blunt and tenderly nuanced story, revealing a woman whose life is fraught with contradictions and marked by joys and tragedies. It’s ultimately a story about love – the blissful, messy, uplifting, crushing, healing, selfish, and selfless love that holds people together and tears them apart.
The author of three previous novels, two short-story collections, and a number of books for young readers, Adderson often explores the complexities of love. This latest work also enters new territory by zeroing in on the complicated experiences of a divorced, middle-aged, single mother.
The book opens with Ellen’s perfect younger daughter facing a pregnancy during her first year of university. This narrative is counterpointed by Ellen’s strained relationship with her older daughter, who’s trying to turn her life around after years as a drug addict. Later, Ellen’s estranged father briefly comes back into her life, only to commit suicide. Two long-time friends offer ongoing support, even as one holds secret a long-ago betrayal.
Ellen’s romantic relationships are equally complicated. Her flagrantly unfaithful ex-husband is in and out of the picture, and Ellen herself is not unimpeachable when it comes to fidelity. While her marriage was falling apart, she had sex with her sister’s husband; years later, she isn’t bothered that the much younger man with whom she is having an affair is in a long-term relationship with another woman. There’s an underlying streak of selfishness throughout, and it isn’t until Ellen is diagnosed with breast cancer that each of the characters begins to understand what it means to love selflessly. Teeming with emotion to the last word, Ellen in Pieces is a revealing portrait of a complex woman.