I just finished this book abuzz with thoughts. By Accident is a story about a family coping with the accidental death of their son, a teenager, who was set to embark on the next stage of his life. The novel begins with Whit's graduation from boarding school. And thus the beginning of the story is a beginning for Whit. I found it harrowing to know what was coming. We are introduced to Whit through his mother's eyes and so the reader views him as larger than life. He is the first born, who will set out for college. He is ripe and maturing - at a cusp, ready to move forward. Thus while the tenor of the graduation is celebratory, knowing more than the characters, knowing what will come, means the reader is hesitant to plow forward.
But the story barrels forward as the family prepares for a trip to their summer cottage. Mother and son set out in separate cars as the father and daughter are getting a ride later with close family friends. The family needs two cars at the cottage; it makes sense for the son to drive. Here it comes, I thought.
Kelly's writing is sparse, yet vivid. We understand Laura Lucas's inner thoughts. We get a full sense of the moments before. And yet the aftermath is less full. The actual accident is never detailed. Instead we, like Whit's own mother, do not see the accident happen. Kelly writes, Laura thinks: "He is simply, suddenly, not there."
Laura's grief is vivid and human. Susan Kelly clearly understands the thought process of a mother. She writes: "You think if you can get them past the conventional childhood perils, past drowning, past drinking Lysol, past closing themselves up inside refrigerators, past getting run over on their bikes on the way to school, that you are free and clear." I am sure if I was a mother I would nod in agreement. (Although potentially Jewish mothers are wired to see the dangers endlessly - the muggers and lurking strange men at every corner). Laura cannot move forward after Whit's death and instead stays inside all day watching the world through closed blinds. Her husband is more logical, less emotional; he wants her to stop "brooding." I know studies have shown that parents who suffer the loss of a child have a higher rate of divorce, and Kelly's evocative novel provides an explanation for this phenomenon. Laura and her husband Russ grieve in different ways. Their son's death shows how differently they have come to view life, their neighborhood, the world, family. Instead of reaching for each other they find solace in other people, other activities.
It is a young tree surgeon who is able to help Laura rejoin the world. Eliott Hacker becomes a stand-in son, a friend, an object of desire. I found Laura's response to Whit's death incredibly realistic. The loss of a child is unimaginable and it must be that much harder when the loss is so sudden, so seemingly preventable and at a point when Whit was truly coming into his own. Before his death, Whit says something about only having so many summers left before he must find a job and enter the working world. And Laura mourns deeply the fact that in reality Whit had even less left. There is such a rawness, a wrongness in a life cut short so soon after a milestone such as graduation. It is unnatural. It is a violent break in the normal life path. Of course losing a child is always unnatural, wrong. But there is something so tragic about a person about to set out on a pathway, and dying right before they reach that pathway.
I found this story so wonderfully compelling and poignant. So many of the details were lifelike, real, textured. The characters were complex and colored-in. The representation of life after loss so vivid. And I particularly liked that some of the chapters are told from the viewpoint of 10 year old Ebie, Whit's younger sister who loved him adoringly. I think my only criticism is that I wanted a fuller picture of the aftermath of the accident. I appreciate that Kelly left out the particular details - as those were irrelevant truly to the story. But I found myself wanting to know about the funeral, the reaction of the grandparents who sent a present for his graduation but are otherwise not mentioned. I was also curious about the reaction of Whit's peers. We get some sparse details about condolences sent by one classmate's parent, and about the reaction of Whit's childhood playmate who is Laura's goddaughter but no one else.
But, overall I appreciated the choices Kelly made as an author. I love the meaning that the title comes to take on at the end of the story. I also appreciated the various questions Kelly tackles. As the blurb stated: "What constitutes betrayal between husband and wife? Can a saviour be a a lover? And are either ever justified?" And additionally: "What is the line between friendship and desire? There was ultimately something incredibly refreshing in the honesty and pacing of this story. I randomly picked it up in the library without any knowledge of the author, and yet I so deeply enjoyed becoming spellbound by her words.