Gwen Kaplan is a content, loving, maybe even slightly smug suburban stay-at-home mom of two. She is devoted to her children and husband and comfortable with her modest, unassuming life. When she wins close to $10 million in the lottery, that comfort is paradoxically upended – first via the tension the money brings to her close-knit family, then by what her new, very public luxury unearths from her past.
The Kaplans exist at the centre of Katrina Onstad’s latest novel, an astute family drama with a deceptively simple premise. Predictably, the Kaplans’ problems begin “after the money,” with the public exposure of the win, a move to a pricey new neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, and the class friction that comes with new schools, new social lives, new outfits, and new lifestyles. The financial shift causes unique issues for each member of the family, but it also causes Gwen to face a dangerous, long-buried secret.
Gwen’s history is revealed in short order: she was a teenage runaway, once homeless and in an abusive relationship – a woman who has turned her life around, fallen in love, and supported a family, all while desperately concealing an incident she’d rather forget. The terrible details and deep shame haunt her, regardless of the distance she’s created and the comfort she’s found. But she pours her energy into outrunning it regardless. In many ways, Gwen’s greatest achievement in the face of where she’s come from is her daughter Maddie: smart, thoughtful, responsible, “a kid who always did her homework on Friday night, as if leaving it until Sunday was reckless.” Maddie is well drawn, and her wisdom, kindness, and understanding endure until the novel’s final pages.
With a backdrop of newly acquired wealth and deep family secrets, Stay Where I Can See You thoughtfully tackles many of the common dilemmas and hardships of motherhood. It touches on how abuse lingers in the body and mind and reveals the dangers of attempting to escape one’s past by way of a new and better life lived through one’s children. It also emphasizes how letting go is both the hardest and the most important thing a parent can do: “A child is born, and funeral bells ring. You make a little life, and you make a little death too. From the moment they’re born they’re leaving, and it’s unbearable.”
There are places where key reveals don’t have the impact intended, and the book’s climax does tread into a convenient closure that may disappoint, but the heightened drama of this story actually feels secondary to its subtle exploration of class and family dynamics. Onstad is especially good at conveying the emotionally fraught terrain between even the closest parents and children and has done a skilful job of invoking the intense anxiety, guilt, and perceived failure endemic to modern motherhood.
Stay Where I Can See You is a taut, entertaining, well-crafted novel that, despite its familiar subject matter, manages to traverse new territory. Onstad has offered up well-worn themes in a fresh and thoughtful way. In the process, she has created a thoroughly enjoyable read.