Elin Hilderbrand’s Barefoot opens with a scene akin to a drawn-out framing shot in a Steven Spielberg movie: through airport attendant Josh Flynn’s eyes we see three woman disembarking from a plane, each lost somewhere beneath a personal burden. Josh, who’s studying creative writing and is in search of a story to follow, is intrigued by the woman and their odd dynamics. Once these opening credits slowly filter away, our lens zooms in and retains this close focus, alternating between the three main characters of Vicki, Brenda and Melanie, with the occasional moment of reflection from Josh.
If it’s an author’s job to throw rocks at her characters, then Hilderbrand has upped the ante by hurling boulders at them instead. Each of the three key characters has come to the island haven of Nantucket in order to seek distance from a personal issue that is devouring them. Vicki, mother of two young children, has just been diagnosed with stage two lung cancer and is preparing to undergo chemotherapy. Brenda, Vicki’s younger sister, is an academic whose career is in turmoil after being caught having an affair with a student and damaging a valuable painting. Melanie has, after a string of failed IVF attempts, finally fallen pregnant, only to learn that her husband is having an affair. Each is wrapped up in her own difficulties, and throughout the book there’s a sense of frustration as each character feels as though her own needs are being subjugated to someone else’s.
It’s not a terribly sympathetic way to render someone, but in truth people are selfish, and our own concerns tend to eclipse those of others. In addition, it seems to be painfully common to only half-listen to someone, to acknowledge their situation without really registering it. Sometimes, too, indifference or misdirection can be a coping mechanism. Brenda may seem terribly cruel for trying to salvage her career while Vicki struggles with both her cancer treatment and what it means to have cancer, but just as Vicki’s primary identity is a mother, Brenda’s primary identity is an academic. For Brenda, throwing herself into writing a screenplay version of the book on which she’s built her career is a potential way to begin her career anew; it’s also a way to zone out from the reality of her sister’s illness. If, of course, she truly understands the gravity of Vicki’s illness, which I’m not entirely sure that she does. Cancer is in many ways an invisible sickness, and it’s one that’s difficult for must of us to understand.
Melanie’s struggle with her infertility and her association of her barrenness (and therefore perceived lack of femininity) with her husband’s infidelity is the crux of what she is seeking to resolve by escaping to Nantucket. Her ambivalence over revealing her pregnancy to her husband is partly to do with her fear that if she does so and he returns to her it will be for the sake of the baby, not for the sake of their relationship. Her knowledge that her husband is having an affair with a woman Melanie thinks of as an unfeminine “tomboy” is also a source of consternation: if her husband is interested in such a woman, but not in Melanie, then perhaps it’s something deeper than her lack of supposed femininity that’s to blame? It’s little wonder, then, that Melanie craves validation from Josh. (And although her final decision about her relationship did make me despair somewhat for women’s lib, I can see how it suits Melanie’s character. You may need to take a few calming breaths, however.)
But to be honest, Brenda and Melanie’s stories are in large part distractions from the narrative that resonates the most, which is Vicki’s. Hilderbrand does an excellent job of capturing the sense of conflict Vicki feels about her cancer and its treatment, as well as the mix of guilt, shame and indignation over her diagnosis. In a way all of the women are dealing with an injustice, but the gravity of Vicki’s situation provides a basis by which to contrast the others’. Unfortunately while this adds strength to Vicki’s plotline, it almost lampoons Brenda and Melanie’s, making what are in any other situation utterly valid issues seem trivial as a result. The book also has an almost iterative quality, telling us about an incident, such as the circumstances about Brenda’s expulsion from the university, and then returning to this same incident over and over, only with a little more added each time. Rather than adding insight or depth to the narrative, it has a dulling effect, and it’s frustrating as a reader to be told and retold something you’ve worked out for yourself in the book’s opening chapters.
There are other issues with the book as well, including the strange, almost messianic role of Josh and the way that his immediately perceived “link” with these three women somehow connects him to them in a weirdly umbilical manner. Even the supporting characters seem to seek some sort of emotional and spiritual reprieve from Josh, and we see broken women rush to him for assistance, and damaged men rethink their attitudes when in his presence. His influence is a bit baffling, and can feel contrived. Josh’s narrative sections are hit and miss as well, with those in particular regarding his desire to find a story to tell feeling extraneous and deliberately metafictional. The book’s ending, too, feels awfully neat and rushed: for a narrative that is largely internal, it seems strange to have the stationary gears of the story suddenly whir into place so that everything is suddenly solved for all of the characters. Except, curiously, Josh, who simply vanishes from the book a few scenes from the end, which I felt was an odd choice given that he plays the role of the Greek chorus in the beginning (not to mention the Greek god throughout the rest of the book). Shouldn’t his viewpoint close out the book as well?
My ambivalence over the ending probably sums up what for me the biggest issue with this book is: the author doesn’t seem quite sure whose story this is, and the book, though at times excellent, and always readable, is unfocused and slightly unconvincing as a result. That said, despite the lack of focus and the oneupmanship regarding each character’s personal woes–that tear-jerking, overly emotional Spielbergian feel is there the whole time–Hilderbrand’s characters do have a sense of presence, and there’s something captivating about watching their stories unfold.
Support Read in a Single Sitting by purchasing Barefoot using one of the affiliate links below:
Other books by Elin Hilderbrand: