Oliver's past life with his wife, Maggie, and young son, Henry, is recounted in the book through a series of memories, dreams, nightmares, and flashbacks. Oliver is extremely agitated, because he could not save his wife and son, who were killed at a park. Unable to cope with his feelings about the situation, he's left his house and his job, has become homeless, and wants to die. Oliver's inconsolable and misses his family. He wears the same outfit every day because it was a gift from his wife, and he feels incredibly guilty about their deaths (and is blamed by his wife's mother, Nancy). His reaction and suicide attempt may seem extreme, but given what has happened, I understand his profound despair, his "leave of absence" from life. His terrible mental state is a direct result of the horrific events and trauma, and he needs counseling and treatment. He's a caring man who feels awful and responsible for "not being there", for not being able to save his wife and child, and he now apologizes frequently for everything when he speaks to others.
At Airhaven, Oliver meets another patient, thirty-year-old Penelope Baker, who is schizophrenic. The book focuses on the friendship developing between these two main characters, Oliver and Penelope, although there are other important characters, too, like William Vaile, a talented chef. In spite of his personal misery, Oliver reaches out to Penelope, who's suffering because of her mental illness and the way it's affected her life and those she's close to; he acknowledges that his presence and kind words help her. Oliver tries to make her realize that she must not push away William, her fiancé, who truly loves her.
Penelope feels as if she's lost control over herself, due to schizophrenia, which has affected her for the past couple of years; she's taken a "leave of absence" from her previous life. Her former life, which included a promising job and a future with a man who cares about her, is gone. Afraid that her mental illness will also ruin William's life, she pushes him away, even though he's completely dedicated to her, in spite of her illness (and in spite of the efforts of his attractive new neighbor, Mariska). Others do not understand William's steadfast loyalty to Penelope. They tend to regard her as "crazy" or strange, and shun her; William's "friend", Rob, lacks sensitivity and makes rude and uninformed comments, and shows how people with mental illnesses may be judged, ridiculed, and berated by others.
Both Oliver and Penelope are sensitive, considerate, likable individuals who do not want to inflict pain on others. This moving and profound story underscores the importance of mental illness to overall health, and shows that these illnesses can be managed with treatment that may include medication and counseling--and connection to others. The friendship between Oliver and Penelope becomes increasingly important. They spend time together at Airhaven, and begin to share their feelings and concerns with each other. Their empathetic friendship contributes greatly to their emotional well-being. In fact, it becomes a lifeline for both of them. In a larger sense, it shows how genuine connection with others is a vital part of mental health.
Leave of Absence is an absorbing story about mental illness and its ramifications, and I entered a new world in this book. (Although I believe I'm a sensitive person, I must admit that I don't usually think about mental health, except once in a while, if I question my own strong feelings about something, particularly if they're negative, or if I wonder if someone else might be having some mental health issues.) I've never before been "inside of the head" of a schizophrenic, and it was a fascinating experience. Penelope hears the voice of a domineering "Eleanor Roosevelt" who's critical and mean and who pressures her to do odd things, such as eat crayons. This character undermines Penelope's self-esteem and overall mental health, and makes her feel awful about herself. At one point in the story, William gives Penelope Eleanor Roosevelt's autobiography, with the hope that if they learn about this woman perhaps they can also discover how to deal with her presence and "voice" more effectively, and curtail future harassment. Oliver's depression has made him homeless and suicidal, and because he's unable to eat, the staff at Airhaven give him Ensure for sustenance. The loss of his wife and child have left him with an insurmountable amount of remorse and guilt--even though what occurred was truly not his fault. Although he continues to suffer emotionally, very gradually, Oliver begins to see a tenuous glimmer of hope. I felt as if I could understand the agony that these characters were going through, and when they began to feel better, I did, too.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S.. The aim of Mental Health Awareness Month is to educate and inform people about a variety of mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, and to reduce stigmas. This book definitely raised my own awareness of mental health, particularly in regards to depression and schizophrenia. Although the story's fictional and dramatic, it's believable and well written, and it makes you think about the importance of mental health. Leave of Absence is a compassionate novel which drew me in promptly and clutched my emotions and attention until the very end.
Tanya J. Peterson is graciously offering a copy of Leave of Absence as a giveaway (U.S./Canada only).
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Enter by 5 PM PDT on Monday, May 20. One winner will be selected randomly and announced on Tuesday, May 21. Good luck!
Special thanks to the author for sending me a copy of this book, and for including me on her book tour. Please visit the other stops on the Leave of Absence Virtual Book Tour for additional reviews and other features.