I have often wondered how those without religion find their way through painful loss. “Resting Places,” Michael C. White’s seventh novel, is the heart wrenching but in no way maudlin tale of such a mother’s journey through guilt and grief. Michael White’s characters are so well drawn that you find yourself wondering, on a rainy afternoon a year after you’ve finished reading the book, what they’re up to now. So it is with Elizabeth, the heroine of “Resting Places,” who finds herself in a quagmire in the aftermath of tragedy. Elizabeth is away from home on a business trip when her only child dies in a car wreck far from home. She did not pick up the phone for his last call because she was, at that moment, in the process of breaking up with her lover. The message on her phone was that her son had something very important to tell her, but Elizabeth can find no clue as to what the important thing could be. In the aftermath, her marriage and work suffer as she struggles for something she cannot quite define – forgiveness, closure, revelation, comfort, truth.
She stops, on the way home from work, to do something many of us have contemplated but not everyone has done – she pulls over to take a good look at a roadside memorial shrine, in Spanish a descanso, a resting place, one of those wooden crosses that are too many places by our highways. She encounters George, who built the memorial for his daughter who’d been killed on that spot in an accident. Moved by what she feels and learns at the site, Elizabeth take the credit card receipts from her son’s last journey and sets out to visit all the places where he stopped before he died, in answer to questions she has not fully formulated.
The places she stops and people she meets teach her about her son, about herself, about the nature of love, marriage, and loss. Grieving parents find each other, in this work, offering companionship and solace, and the conclusion is as fitting as it is surprising. The book is masterfully written – after you read it for the story, you can analyze it to see how the characters reveal their back story through conversation, the use of setting, style, syntax, scene – but first read it for the story. The beginning will take away the breath of every parent. The ending is satisfying, but not pat. It is a book that will come back to you long after you finish reading.