The Breakdown Lane

The early warning signs of a midlife crisis often go unrecognized by everyone. So do those of multiple sclerosis. Who would have guessed, Julieanne Gillis broods later, that her husband Leo's trendy preoccupation with running and natural foods would morph into a siren song of intentional communities and the laid-back “babes” he thinks he’ll find there. But then Julieanne never once connected her own signals, like the leg suddenly freezing in exercise class or the two-week blank-out, with a possible real illness. Her doctor's diagnosis comes like the proverbial thunderclap.

In some ways Julieanne is lucky—she has a fair amount of financial security, a job she can do from home, and a loyal friend, practical Cathy. By the time she learns she has MS, though, Leo has purposely dropped out of touch and depleted their bank account. And teenage son Gabe has secretly written and sent in some of her columns, lest she lose her job during the two lost weeks she spent in bed. Julieanne is deeply ashamed—surely an advice columnist is supposed to manage her own life better than this.

Her greatest assets are her three extraordinary children. Caro and Gabe, the two teenagers, trace their dad's whereabouts from an e-mail trail and set off cross-country to find him. Against all odds, they do. Even after learning of his wife's illness, Leo acts like a jerk, but by that time Julieanne's own strengths have begun to win through. Her story resolves its way, slowly, into an unexpected happy ending.

If Julieanne is Everywoman beset with troubles, and her husband stands in for legions of middle-aged men, the children are unique. Sunny Aury, the toddler, is memorable, but Gabe is the real star. He narrates half the story, and his resourcefulness and droll outlook shine through every line. An absorbing tale, Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Breakdown Lane glimpses the good, the bad, and the random as they crowd in on a contemporary woman's life.