An affecting Southern tale about second chances and banishing the ghosts of regret.
Ellie is devastated when her mother Lillian suddenly dies. Theirs was not a perfect relationship—Lillian was one of those moneyed Southern Belles devoted to perfection and protocol—but Ellie was a faithful daughter nonetheless. Cleaning out her mother's closets, Ellie comes across Lillian's secret journal, begun when she was a girl, with one single entry added every New Year's Eve for the remainder of her life. Ellie is shocked to discover this paper stranger: the carefree girl, the dramatic teenager, the passionate young woman, in love with "Him." The mystery man in question crushed Lillian, turning her into the exacting figure Ellie knew. Ellie fears this fate for herself. Nearly 50, trapped in a marriage to the right sort of man, living the right sort of social life in Atlanta, Ellie feels as if she's dying. And then Hutch O'Brien reenters her life. A curator at the Historical Society, Hutch is finishing an exhibition on Atlanta's Woman of the Year winners from the 1960s. Lillian was a winner and Hutch suspects it was because she was involved with the civil-rights movement. But Hutch is not some crumpled historian—he is Ellie's college lover, her very own wrong-kind-of-man. She tells Hutch about the journal, and the two head to Lillian's closest friend Birdie's house on the Alabama coast for some answers. As Lillian's secret life is uncovered, Ellie's marriage to Rusty is revealed for what it is: a loveless endeavor begun for her mother's approval and Ellie's own sense of safety. Spending time with Hutch shows her there could have been another life—one of passion—just as her mother could have had a different life with "Him." By novel's end, long-held secrets are revealed, the Alabama coast enchants Ellie into a new life, and Hutch, well...
Romantic storytelling at its simple best.
From the Publisher
“A beautiful, emotionally engrossing story about marriage and motherhood, loss and longing. Patti Callahan Henry has done it again, capturing all the complexity of relationships with insight, compassion and a lyrical, unforgettable voice.” Emily Giffin, New York Times bestselling author of Something Borrowed
“An affecting Southern tale about second chances and banishing the ghosts of regret… Romantic storytelling at its simple best.” Kirkus (starred review)
“Lyrical and moving… Patti Henry's luminous story-telling shines through once again.” Mary Kay Andrews, New York Times bestselling author of Summer Rental
“Coming Up For Air is a beautiful exploration of the deepest mysteries of the human heart.” Susan Wiggs, New York Times bestselling author of the Lakeshore Chronicles series
“Elevated by Henry's subtle, sometimes excellent characterization….Ellie's earnest quest for true happiness will resonate with many readers, especially fans of Kristin Hannah and Susan Wiggs.” Booklist
“A southern woman's journey into truth. A emotionally intense, beautiful and unforgettable novel. I loved it.” Robyn Carr, New York Times bestselling author of the Virgin River novels
“A buoyant journey of self-discovery from an author who understands the human heart… With the complexity of a sultry southern breeze, Coming Up for Air reveals the link between a mother's secret past and a daughter's hope for a new future.” Sherryl Woods, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Honeysuckle Summer
“Coming up for Air is heartwarming with a touch of magic. Patti Callahan Henry's elegant writing takes you on an emotional journey you won't soon forget. . . nor will you want to.” Diane Chamberlain, New York Times bestselling author of The Midwife’s Confession
“A richly textured story of love, loss and redemption reminiscent of some of the best southern storytellers.” Donna Ball, author of A Year on Ladybug Farm
Read an Excerpt
Coming Up for Air
There are both wonderful and awful moments in a woman's life. Many of them, really. Standing in a white dress in front of family and friends, vowing to forever love the handsome man in front of me, is on top of my wonderful list. Then years later, standing in the receiving line at my mother's funeral and pulling away from that same man's touch because I knew I didn'tcouldn'tlove him anymore is more than awful. It's tragic.
In these pages, I will try to wrap words around all of the tumultuous, confusing emotions, attempt to make sense out of what at the moment feels senseless.
On the day of my mother's funeral there was only one type of flower: lilies. Everywhere. There were too many to count. With all the flowers in the world, the millions of blossoms and buds, you'd have thought that someone would have brought another sort.
I know what the lily means in the language of flowers: innocence,purity, and beauty. But this is not why the church overflowed with lilies. For twelve generations, or maybe longer, the firstborn daughters of firstborn daughters in our family are named Lillian. I understood why mourners brought these blooms, but God, the aroma was overwhelming, drowning me in cloying sweetness.
Sadie, my best friend, stood next to me in the funeral receiving line. "Ellie," she whispered.
"What?" I leaned closer to her.
"I wonder if there are any lilies left in all of Atlanta. This is insanity."
"It still wouldn't be enough for her," I said.
Sadie laughed in the quiet manner of churchlike respect. "No," she said, "it would not have been enough."
My husband, Rusty, stood on my opposite side with his hand on the small of my back, and our nineteen-year-old daughter, Lil, was to the left of him. Sadie and I attempted to hold in our laughter, like the nine-year-old girls we once had been in the chapel at private school instead of the forty-seven-year-old women we were. The misplaced amusement bubbled up from places forbidden and grabbed our guts and throats with the release of hilarity. I don't know why laughter comes at moments it should be banned; I don't know why it rains when we least need it or why love leaves when we most need it. But there we were: laughing at death.
"I bet," I said as I stifled the rising and irresponsible laughter, "everyone thought they were being original and thoughtful, sending lilies to Lilly's funeral."
In her attempt to stop a choked chuckle, Sadie snorted, and it was then that we broke into full laughter over something that was only vaguely funny or maybe not funny at all. But just the way you find yourself wanting something worse when you know you can't have it, we were unable to stop laughter in the one place it is inappropriatethe middle of a receiving line at Mother's funeral.
Rusty glanced at me, which for a reason I still don't understandmade me laugh harder. He reached out to touch me, and I pulled away. My daughter looked at me as if I'd lost my mind, and I wondered if maybe I had. Sadie squeezed my hand, and we returned to normalour mournful expressions intact.
Of course, nothing about Mother's death was funny. It was sudden and awful and left our small family bereft and confused. I've discovered the finality of death in this: It remains unchanged and unmoved by loneliness, regret, or grief. My need for Mother, for some kind of redemption or reconciliation, came fresh with every thought and reminder of her absence. Missing her was the ache with which I woke and then fell into restless sleep knowing.
The funeral was a huge event, and Mother would have been proud to see how many people came, considering we're a small family. Mother is an only child, and Dad has only one brother, Uncle Cottonan elusive figure in my life, an author who is constantly traveling and in exotic locales, a writer about whom Mother rolled her eyes as if writing were a wasteful career that didn't even deserve a comment (much as any career in the "arts" is wasteful, which is an odd opinion for a woman on the High Museum of Art board). But that's my mothercontradictions seamlessly fitting inside one another like the babushka dolls my grandmother brought me from her trip to Russia. Mother's best friend, Sadie's mother, Birdie, walked through the crowd, making order of the crowd and the event as smoothly as if Mother were there doing it herself.
Our web of friends caught Dad, Lil, Rusty, and me, cradling us with their grief and respect. There were newspaper articles and monuments, trees planted, and a bench placed in front of the High Museum.
The last woman in line then approached us, holding a single lily in her hand as if she were a bride going down the aisle. I thought I'd start laughing again but found I was finished. The day was almost over, and I was lulled into that certainty that I'd done well, that we had made it through the worst of it.
"Ellie?" A voice behind me said my name. Softly. Perfectly.
A hand fell on my shoulder, and then I saw his face. Twenty years later, minutes and hours and days rearranged to allow me to see him again as if time hadn't passed at all. Mostly I saw his eyes: almond shaped and kind, brown with green underneath, as if the eyes had meant to be the deep color of forest ferns and then at the last minute changed their mind.
I reached for Rusty's hand to steady myself, but he was making large gestures while talking to his buddy Weston and didn't feel me groping for firm grounding.
Then I saw Hutch's smile, a little crooked and higher on the righthand side.
He hates being late.
I smiled at him. "Wow, hello, Hutch O'Brien." My voice held firm and fast, and for this I was grateful.
He is witty with a cutting sarcasm.
He loves his eggs fried with buttered toast.
There is a scar on his cheek where a dog bit him when he was ten years old. For every person who asks, he has a new story for how he obtained this scar. I've heard more tales than I can remember.
"Ellie," he said, "I'm so sorry about your mother. I know how close you were."
"Thanks, Hutch." I took his hand and shook it as if we were past and vague acquaintances.
We stood silent, holding hands. I felt tears rising and I wanted to place my head on his chest: I knew where it would fit.
"Don't cry," he said, and squeezed my hand.
"It's great to see your beautiful face. Even in your grief, you're adorable."
"Not true," I said. "But thanks."
"Did your mom tell you that I'd interviewed her last week for the Atlanta History Center exhibit?"
"Yes, she did." Proper sentences formed on my tongue with the well-practiced art of social graces.
He likes the cold side of the pillow and the aisle seat on the plane.
Hutch glanced around the sacristy. "I know this is an awful time and you probably won't even remember seeing me, but can I ask you a favor?"
"Anything," I said.
We were still holding hands, and I wouldn't let go.
"Weyour mother and Ididn't finish our interview. Would you ... talk to me when things calm down?"
"Okay," he said, and let go of my hand. "I'll call you? Is that okay?"
"I'm sorry, Ellie. I'm really sorry you're going through this pain."
"Thank you, Hutch. And thanks for coming."
Rusty tuned in; he'd heard the name. Hutch walked away, and Rusty took my still-warm hand. "Was that Hutch?"
"Yes," I whispered.
"What the hell was he doing here?"
I shrugged. "I assume he's paying his respects just like everyone else here."
Rusty turned back to Weston and released my hand.
We were leaving the church when I saw the wildflower arrangement: a glass vase shaped like a large fish bowl was full of cornflowers and black-eyed Susans, forget-me-nots and Texas bluebonnets. I stopped and slid my finger up the stalk of a cornflower, rubbing the petal against my cheek. A long inhale of the sweet jasmine vine, which poured out of the urn like wine, made me dizzy.
I lifted the card from the arrangement. "Condolences, Hutchinson O'Brien."
Rusty came from behind and hugged me, wiping the tears I hadn't realized were wet on my face. "I think the worst is over, baby. Let's go home," he said.
"Yes," I said. "Home."
I placed the card back in the flower arrangement, but it fluttered to the floor, where I left it with his name staring up at me.
We make our choices and then we live with them.
COMING UP FOR AIR. Copyright © 2011 by Patti Callahan Henry. All rights reserved.