I’m really excited to be presenting the first chapter of Linda Barrett’s new novel Family Interruped, and to tell you my thoughts about it. But first…
About the book, Family Interrupted:
Two years after their 12 year old daughter’s accidental death by a motorist, Claire and Jack Barnes go through the motions of celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. When artist Claire produces her gift–a full-scale oil painting of their daughter–Jack has had enough. With his daughter gone, his wife focused on the past and his 20 year old son living on his own, Jack feels like a stranger in his own home and moves out the day after the party.
Claire understands they’re heading for divorce. Two days later, when she’s alone in the house, a young woman comes to the door and hands over her infant. This is their son’s baby. The girl says, “I told Ian she’d be too much work, and I’ve got other plans.” She disappears. Ian is ready to put the baby up for adoption because his daughter deserves a good, solid family, better than what the Barneses have become. Jack and Claire must figure out what to do next.
Intersecting the main stories of the Barnes family is the subplot involving the driver of the car. No alcohol, no speeding involved. But guilt seeps into the driver’s soul and changes her life. Who will forgive this woman?
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About the author, Linda Barrett:
Linda Barrett is the author of 13 novels of contemporary romance. She’s earned many industry awards through Romance Writers of America, including the Holt Medallion, The Award of Excellence and the Write Touch Reader’s award. Family Interrupted is her first women’s fiction story. A graduate of Hunter College, Linda now lives in the Tampa area with her husband. They have three grown sons and the most adorable, intelligent, super-duper grandchildren ever!
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My Thoughts on the First Chapter of Family Interrupted
You can’t really judge a whole novel from one chapter, but if the first chapter of Family Interrupted really is representational of the rest of the book, I can’t imagine not liking it. Sure, on the surface the subject is grim: a couple recovering from the death of their twelve-year-old daughter and trying not to let their marriage go down the tubes, but really, that’s just the background. The rest of the story is one of finding yourself when the thing that used to define you suddenly…doesn’t.
I like the way Barrett writes – her language is vivid, but still accessible. I also like that she’s not afraid to use touches of humor. One of the gritty realities of life is that grief and laughter are often inextricably intertwined (to borrow a Douglas Adams phrase I’ve loved since I was thirteen). Laughter through tears is a core part of that, just as grinning through a fight, or weeping after sex are both normal reactions for some of us.
Ultimately, I can’t know from one chapter what will happen with Claire, but I do know that in Barrett’s deft hands the story will be interesting, compelling, and really real.
Read the First Chapter of Family Interrupted
“Bellisima! Brava! Your best work yet, Signora Barnes. Maybe you give Leonardo some competition?”
I rolled my eyes and grinned at my instructor. “Leonardo can rest easy.”
Dr. Colombo teased, exhorted, or flirted with his students on a regular basis, especially the talented ones, but comparing my work to the Mona Lisa was going far, even for this powerhouse.
I stepped away from my easel and focused on a portrait of a young girl peeking sideways under half-closed lids. I’d called it, GIRL WITH SECRETS. The child held secrets I wanted to know.
“Your daughter, yes?” Colombo asked, his voice a deep rumble.
DNA didn’t lie. I nodded and said, “On the outside, Kayla’s mine, brown eyes and blonde hair, but inside, she’s her dad, an unquenchable extrovert. Sometimes, my daughter’s surrounded by more friends than my house can hold.” My pride in Kayla overrode the mock complaint. “She’s twelve-and-a-half, almost a teenager—almost grown up—as she likes to remind me.”
“Ah-h.” He sighed as if he understood. “I have two daughters, Signora, and I know how they too much wanted to be women, but were not ready, never ready in the eyes of their mama.”
The man had nailed it, nailed my heart. I wasn’t ready for Kayla to grow up and fly away, especially with her brother applying for college this year. I wasn’t ready to let either of my children go.
“This portrait of your daughter…. It is-is…”-Colombo waved his arm this way and that as he searched his English vocabulary-“exceptional!” His voice rang out, eyes shone. The young student at the next easel walked over and stared.
“Holy Toledo, Claire,” she whispered. “Your kid could step right into the room. How’d you do that?”
Surprised and uncomfortable-I was just a student like the others-I wondered how to respond. Capturing Kayla’s image had come easily. I knew every smile, nuance, and angle of her face. I knew how she looked when she was happy or sad or puzzled. The work hadn’t been that difficult to execute.
“I’m her mom,” I finally said as if that explained everything. To me, it did. A few of the students nodded. Others seemed to be waiting for more, which I guess was not surprising. I was old enough to be their moms!
“I know all Kayla’s moods and expressions,” I said. “I can picture her rolling her eyes at her dad’s bad jokes. And I’ve seen those dark eyes shine when he walks through the door each night.”
My classmates seemed glued to my words, so on I went. “And her hair…it’s so thick and long, she still needs my help combing it after a shampoo.” I thought about how I could never resist kissing her neck and laughing when she groaned, “O-O-h, Mom’.”
Pointing to Kayla’s hair in the painting, I said, “See the rich auburn color here? But in the summer sun, it glows like a banked fire. Maybe next time, I’ll paint her outdoors.”
I finally shut up, and in the quiet room, I felt the other students’ eyes on me and forced myself not to squirm. Being the center of attention was Jack’s specialty, not mine.
“Don’t be too impressed,” I quickly added, “I’ve sketched her hundreds of times. Maybe thousands.” I was trying to be modest for the sake of my classmates, but dang, I found it hard not to celebrate. See, Jack? I told you I had talent! And the validation feels damn good.
My endless drawings through the years had meant less to him than the bottom line of our construction company. But when I turned forty-five last year, I knew I couldn’t keep waiting for Jack’s promise of “one day.” I’d seized my own moment and enrolled in the University of Houston’s MFA program.
I was a second year student now, and whatever artistic gifts I possessed were being revealed under the guidance of a marvelous staff. No instructor, however, could match the gusto and intuition of Professor Colombo. Like the original explorer, this Colombo also led his crew on a voyage of discovery. Create like Michelangelo! Find the heart, the soul of the stone and chip away the rest. Fall in love with your subject, and it will show.
The teacher had a point. I certainly loved my subject.
“So, Signora, we will spotlight GIRL WITH SECRETS in the galleria next month, at the exhibition.”
I pivoted toward the man so sharply, I almost tripped. “Exhibit? But I’m not ready.” Was I? Sure I was living my dream, learning and improving, but didn’t I needed more experience and confidence before showing my work in public? If I’d spent the last twenty years painting instead of decorating model homes for Barnes Construction, I would have been more than willing to exhibit.
“With respect, Signora Barnes, you do not decide who is ready.” Colombo swept away my protest with no hesitation. “I, myself, hand-picked the twelve artists in this class. I studied the portfolios from last year. You are more than good enough. Art is to be shared and enjoyed. To touch the soul. Claire—or Clara, I may call you Clara? Good. Let me tell you something else, a secret between us.”
He glanced around the room while I stood alert, heart racing at being the focus of his pointed attention. Hand-picked for his class? I’d had no idea. When he turned to me again, his gaze holding mine, a frisson of electricity danced down my back. His index finger covered his mouth for a moment, reminding me that this was a private conversation.
“You are my most promising student in a long time,” he began. “Your hands transform what your heart feels and your eyes see.” He tapped his chest. “The emotions here, inside, are on the canvas too! Do you think everyone can do that?”
I took the question seriously. “Well, not the man-on-the-street, but the other students…?”
“You are not listening, Clara! Am I speaking with the ‘other students?’”
As his words began to sink in, my excitement soared. My attention focused exclusively on Colombo, and my classmates seemed to disappear, leaving the professor and me in our own private world. The man was implying I was extra-special, wasn’t he? Oh, Lordy, I hoped so. And then I’d tell Jack. And maybe we could hire a decorator, someone to replace me at work. If that happened, I could finally devote most of my time to art and less to business. Could the day get any better?
“Thank you. Thank you.” I’d finally found my voice. “I appreciate everything you’ve said and done. I know I’ve improved as an artist because of you.” Take a breath. Calm down. I turned my attention back to my painting of Kayla. Despite all the compliments, evaluating my own stuff was difficult, especially at this professional level. Sometimes, I was too critical, sometimes too soft.
“All right, professor. I’ll agree with you. It’s pretty good.”
“Very good, Clara. Excellent.”
During the last month, I’d started trusting Colombo’s judgment despite him being a showman. His own work had impressed me-his use of light and shadow in particular—and the Art department had been delighted to attract this visiting professor. Now I felt lucky to be studying with him. Even privileged. I knew my talented classmates felt the same. But to be called his best student in a long time?
I scanned the room for glimpses of the others’ work and realized my fellow students had already put away their easels and were leaving the studio.
Quickly checking the wall clock, I felt my stomach tighten. “Oh, God, I’ll be late. And Kayla has a dental appointment.” Forgetting about my schedule and kids was unlike me. Had I encouraged the professor’s compliments? Our lingering after class?
Pushing those thoughts aside, I quickly became a focused mom again. I carried Kayla’s portrait to my private studio space, threw my smock on a chair, and shouted a goodbye to the professor while running toward the staircase. Down, down, down, until I exited the building to the parking lot, digging for my car keys at the same time. Finally, I thrust myself into the driver’s seat and revved the engine. Back to reality. Back to Jack, the kids, my domestic life and my working life. Tomorrow was soon enough to face Colombo and his compliments. A handsome Colombo with his dark mane of hair touched by wings of silver. I wondered how many art students, both in Italy and America, had produced his portrait while studying with him. My fingers reached for a phantom pencil.
I followed the restrained campus speed limit, but hit the gas as soon as I reached the Interstate. Twenty-four miles stood between the University of Houston and home. I gave myself fifteen minutes. The miles disappeared until sirens blared and lights flashed in my rearview mirror. Damn, damn, damn. I slowed down, pulled over and prepared to smile my widest. Jack always said my smile was my secret weapon. I didn’t necessarily agree but was prepared to give it a try if it meant getting Kayla to her appointment on time.
I rolled down my window and beamed.
“License and registration, Ma’am.” No twinkle, no smile, no sense of humor. Pure cop face.
I handed over the documents and used my cell as I waited for Houston’s Finest to check out my identity. I had to leave a message at the house, but wasn’t really surprised. If Ian had to watch his sister, he’d be sure they shot hoops in the driveway or kicked a soccer ball on the lawn. God forbid he’d set a good example by doing homework right away. So irresponsible. I sighed a frustrated sigh. A mother’s sigh.
“Ma’am, you were clocked doing eighty in a sixty. That’s twenty miles over the limit.”
I could do the math. “Any chance of turning this into a warning? I’m usually excellent at following the rules.” Smile. I had to try.
No answer except for the scratching of his pen. Five minutes later, I was on my way with a ticket nearing $200 and an invitation to driving school. For the rest of the trip, I crept at posted speeds until, with a sigh of relief, finally entered my subdivision and turned left around the lake toward Bluebonnet Drive.
As I approached, I saw a small crowd milling on the corner, blocking my street. In the mid-distance was a revolving red glow. My body tensed, every muscle taut with strain at the possibilities. I lowered my window when I saw my friend, Anne Conroy, waving at me.
“She’s here,” Anne called over her shoulder while rushing toward my vehicle. “Pull over. You need to park right now.”
I didn’t like how she looked. My hands began to tingle, but I followed her directions.
“There’s been an accident, Claire.”
Instead of answering, Anne opened my door and pulled me out. “It’s Kayla. She was hit by a car. The EMT’s are lifting her into the ambulance right now.”
My worst fear…. I took off like a track star. A path opened as I headed for the gurney. Around me were familiar faces I could barely recognize because I saw only one face. Kayla. My beautiful Kayla, lying on that narrow bed, her complexion snow-white, forehead swollen, head enlarged, and blood oozing from her ears. Her stillness frightened me most.
“I’m here, baby-girl. Mama’s right here.” I leaned over her and kissed her cool cheek. No response.
“Ma’am, we’ve got to get her in the truck.”
One medic spoke to me while the other was arranging stuff–tubes, IV’s, and God-knows-what. They hoisted the gurney, and I jumped in beside it while scanning the crowd for Ian. Where was that boy? Then I saw him, right in front of me, sobbing aloud with tears running thick down his face.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but we were only throwing a football,” he cried, his voice cracking. “That’s all…”
“You should have been doing homework,” I snapped.
He ignored me and pointed at a young woman sitting on the ground, a stranger. “She was driving and…and…”
Glancing at her, I took a mental snapshot, certain I’d recall the details later. I didn’t care about the driver then. Instead, anger, fear, and dread filled me, and I lashed out. “How could you have let this happen? You were in charge.”
“But it wasn’t my fault! I’ve told you a million times, I’m not a babysitter. Maybe if you were home more, Kayla would be okay. It wasn’t my…fault.”
Because it’s my fault. My fault for being late. That was the bottom line. My son and I were at odds again, and remorse filled me. “I’m so sorry, Ian,” I whispered. “It’s all right. You’ll be okay. Kayla will, too.” She had to be. “Hang out with Anne and Maddy for awhile, and I’ll see you tonight.”
“Gotta close these doors, Ma’am,” said the EMT, suiting action to his words.
For a moment, I worried about leaving Ian, but later, was glad I did. My son didn’t need to witness or hear the conversations that followed.