The Life Before Her Eyes

The Life Before Her Eyes

3.3 24
by Laura Kasischke

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Diana stands before the mirror preening with her best friend, Maureen. Suddenly, a classmate enters holding a gun, and Diana sees her life dance before her eyes. In a moment the future she was just imagining--a doting wife and mother at the age of forty--is sealed by a horrific decision she is forced to make. In prose infused with the dramatically feminine


Diana stands before the mirror preening with her best friend, Maureen. Suddenly, a classmate enters holding a gun, and Diana sees her life dance before her eyes. In a moment the future she was just imagining--a doting wife and mother at the age of forty--is sealed by a horrific decision she is forced to make. In prose infused with the dramatically feminine sensuality of spring, we experience seventeen-year-old Diana's uncertain steps into womanhood--her awkward, heated forays into sex; her fresh, fragile construction of an identity. Together with the sights and sounds of renewal, we experience the tasks of Diana's adulthood: protecting her beloved daughter and holding onto her successful husband.

An acclaimed writer and poet, Laura Kasischke has crafted a consciousness that encompasses the truth of a teenager's world and the profound transformation of that world at midlife. Resonant and deeply stirring, The Life Before Her Eyes finds piercing beauty in the midst of a nightmare from long ago that echoes like a dirge beneath each new spring.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


"Hauntingly original . . . A tour de force."--O Magazine

"Potent and poetic storytelling. Such is the agility of [Kasischke's] writing that it can encompass both a heinously nihilistic act and a most magical . . . outcome."--Elle

"Poetic . . . A novel that takes on deep matters of life and death; conscience and consciousness; family, love, and friendship."--Los Angeles Times

Jo Ann Beard
The intensity of The Life Before Her Eyes is both enhanced and leavened by Kasischke's masterful and stunning use of imagery; she is as much poet as novelist, and the melding of the two has produced a work of dark and lyrical beauty.
author of The Boys of My Youth
Publishers Weekly
Acclaimed poet Kasischke applies her lyrical skills to fiction in this double portrait of Diana McPhee as 40-year-old wife and mother and 17-year-old girl. As in her earlier novels (White Bird in a Blizzard and Suspicious River), here Kasischke's precise imagery and the languid, dreamy pace capture the poignancy and sluggish awakening of late adolescence, though they are at odds with the harsh tale that unfolds. Blond Diana and dark Maureen, regarding their images in the high school bathroom mirror, jolt from their teenage dreams at the sound of gunfire. Their attacker is fellow student Michael Patrick, who laughs as he delivers a horrible ultimatum: one girl will live and one will die; each has a moment to choose. Maureen offers herself, and the sacrifice is accepted or so it seems. As the past begins to contaminate Diana's safe suburban life with her beautiful daughter and loving husband, it becomes clear that this future is the result of her imagination constructing a life she may never live in the moments before Patrick releases the safety on his gun. Kasischke is at her best writing about young women urgently sexual, childishly careless. This song of innocence and of experience reads like a fairy tale gone drastically wrong, the sensibility heightened by Kasischke's emphasis on language. Despite the poignancy of the central moral conflict (her or me?), its resolution is made secondary to the novel's stylistic imperatives and, as a result, the story loses much of its power. Still, it will please readers who were mesmerized by The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and other tales of teenage reverie. 10-city author tour. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Diana sees herself at 40 as content: happily married to a markedly older philosophy professor, mother to a daughter named Emma, spending her days sketching in her studio. She lives in the town of her childhood, but under improved economic and social circumstances: her husband is celebrated in his field; her daughter attends a local private girls' school. The few troubles in Diana's almost-middle-aged life are the recent death of her cat Timmy, whom she acquired when she was a teenager, and a growing distractedness mingled with intense headaches. Kasischke gives readers a perfectly formed mature woman, right on the heels of a prologue in which teenaged girlfriends are confronted by an armed classmate who demands they tell him which of them he should kill. In a Solomonic passage, one girl directs the gunman to herself, while the other points him toward her friend. How would a girl live with that sort of guilt, the knowledge that her friend sacrificed her own life while the one who lived told the killer to take her friend's life rather than her own? But, it turns out, as the narrative weaves back and forth between the daily lives of the girls before the shooting and Diana's idyllic maturity, this isn't the drama of the story after all. The drama is even more intense than the half-life of a murdered friendship: Diana's maturity, the reader finally learns, is the flight of the teenager's imagination in the moment after she, too, is shot. "The life before her eyes" has flashed ahead as well as back. Kasischke paces her story with a precision that carries the reader ahead, in spite of backward glances at girlish trysts and eating binges. Highly recommended for high school girls and women whoonce were. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Harcourt, Harvest, 280p.,
— Francisca Goldsmith
Library Journal
This third novel by Michigan author Kasischke (Suspicious River) opens with a shocking scene from a Columbine-like school massacre. Diana and her best friend are confronted by a schoolmate killer, but only Diana is spared. Fast-forward 20 years: Diana, now middle-aged and still beautiful, is a housewife and artist living in the same idyllic university town with a handsome professor-husband and a young daughter. She has seemingly repressed her memory of the event as well as her survivor's guilt, but her perfect world and her grip on reality are both starting to crack. These scenes are imbued with that sense of eerie apprehension found in a good horror flick. Woven through the book is a flashback narrative of Diana's sunny but empty-headed adolescent days. The novel plays teenage Diana's youthful illusions of immortality and beauty against the shifting, uneasy reality of middle age. Kasischke, also a published poet, writes prose that is dreamy and lyrical. This is one book you won't want to put down. Highly recommended for all popular fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/01.] Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Kasischke (White Bird in a Blizzard, 1998, etc.) uses the random high-school massacres of the last few years as a taking-off point to compare the life of a typical teenaged girl with the adult self she becomes-or imagines she will.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


It was another beautiful day in a perfect life:

    June again, and all the brilliance that came with it. All the soft edges of spring were gone, and a kind of rarity had taken their place. There was a sharpness to the trees and leaves, which were the green of bottle glass, while the sky beyond them had hardened into a pure and cloudless blue.

    Diana McFee opened her eyes, and she might as well have been seeing the sky for the first time. Such a mundane surprise to be alive! A forty-year-old woman in the middle of June, looking straight into a very blue sky, a sky that looked like the center of something entirely fresh that had been neatly sliced in half with a sharp knife. A mind full of ether. A breathtaking emptiness, like a clean kitchen, a clear conscience.

    She realized that she'd drifted into sleep while idling in the minivan, waiting for her daughter outside the elementary school, and had been startled awake by the hysteria of bells within the school's walls, up there on the hill, where the school day had just ended.

    Inside, Diana knew, the girls were grabbing their jackets, pulling up their kneesocks, lining up outside the orange double doors that would burst open like a can of confetti in a moment. The green hillside would become a chaos of windbreakers and pigtails and the terrible bird shrieks of little girls.

    But she was still in the process of waking, of rematerializing after her brilliant dream ... a soccer mom stepping out of sleep as if it were a mirror, her body and mind coming together againatom by atom in the brightness where she waited.

    She rubbed her eyes and inhaled.


    She loved summer. The way it dried and tidied everything up. All through March, April, May, Diana had been waiting for the struggle to be over—the smell of rotting and newness, the grass and the roots like damp hair. So much moisture involved in resurrection! The dirty puddles full of worms. The moist privacy of turtles scrambling out of the muck. All that birthing and blood, and the blatant sexuality of it. The teenage girls, too flushed, looking as if they'd just been dragged out of the mud by their hair.

    In May, Diana could hardly stand to look at those teenage girls wearing their first short skirts and tank tops of the season after so much winter whiteness ... those teenage girls waiting for the bus, crossing the street. The skin on their limbs looked barer than bare skin, as if the top layer of it had been peeled away, exposing to the air something more tender than flesh. Winter lasted a long time in the Midwest. For five months those girls had been buried in snow.

    But by mid-June they were wearing human skin again.

    Diana loved June.

    She realized again how much she loved it, as she unrolled the driver's side window of the minivan and breathed in the glassy air of it, knowing how much she loved it ... all of it:

    Summer, and her life ... loved it with a heart that might as well have been made of tissue paper, it fluttered so lightly in her chest. There was the taste of pure sugar in her mouth. What had she last eaten? A peppermint? A sugar cube? Whatever it had been, it had been white and sweet, and she craved another.

    She loved the sun on the side of her face, the smell of warm vinyl filling the minivan. She loved being herself in her forty-year-old body ... being a wife, a mother ... the bake sales and the field trips; the Band-Aids and the small sweaters coming out of the washer soggy and smelling of rain; the flour blended into butter and brown sugar, and the chocolate chips folded into that.

    Now as she thought of it she realized that she loved all the material details of her days. The rolling heft of her silver minivan, the way the air parted to let it pass like a bullet on its way to the grocery store, the library, her child's elementary school, her part-time job.

    She loved the sparkling clapboard house in which she lived on one of the nicest, shadiest streets—Maiden Lane!—in one of the most picturesque little college towns in the country.

    Her daughter was pretty and happy.

    Her husband was sexy, attentive, successful.

    The world was very round. Round like a fishbowl. Thought swam around in circles in it.

    How could they have ever believed it was flat? So much slipping and bending and arcing into space. Even at that moment, still stepping from her dream, Diana McFee could feel the roundness and hear the wind whispering as the earth turned in its grasp.

    We are afloat in the sky, she thought, cradled, buoyed ...

Mr. McCleod—a sad, short man with yellow teeth—looks up from the lesson he's thing to teach ...

    He almost never looks up. He is a painfully shy man, who makes teaching look like torture. His classroom is full of props that he can hide behind. Magnifying glasses. A television monitor. Computers. Microscopes. A transparency projector. And a map of the world beside a map of the human body—all its muscle groups and major organs labeled. Even the face on that human map looks like meat. And a skeleton, a real skeleton, which hangs from the wall at the front of the room ... a skeleton with whom Mr. McCleod is rumored, jokingly, to be in love.

    "She's a teenager," he told them on the first day of class in September.

    He pointed out the narrowness of the pelvic bones and showed them how some of the bones that an older female skeleton would have were missing on this one. He explained there were bones in the female body that didn't ossify—ossify: "to convert into bone," he wrote on the board in his lurching scrawl—until the human female was out of her teens.

    Femoral bones, spinal vertebrae.

    Those bones stayed soft inside the body for a long time, and if the girl died young, they simply melted away with her flesh.

    Teeth and bones, Mr. McCleod told the class, would identify them—who they'd been, what they'd done—long after they were dead....

Her husband? Had she been thinking of him? Counting her many blessings?

    Sexy, attentive, successful.

    He was a respected professor of philosophy at the university. She'd been—the old story—his student.

     And Diana herself was successful, though in a more modest sense than her husband. She was an artist—a sketch artist—and taught a few afternoons a week at the local community college. She spent her mornings in the studio her husband had finished for her above their garage, and drew. Pen and ink, graphite pencil, charcoal. Her work was sometimes used on the covers of poetry collections, literary magazines, church programs, calendars. She worked strictly in black and white ... shadow and light.

    And she was attractive. Still blond, though now she used a rinse to resuscitate the blond of her younger years. She was fit and slender, long-legged and blue-eyed as ever. She'd been told rather often that she resembled Michelle Pfeiffer, the Michelle Pfeiffer of the late 1990s, the one Diana used to watch on the movie channel, wishing (in vain, she'd assumed then) that she would look that good when she was almost forty.

    And now she did.

    Not that appearances were all that important to her now. She had wasted so much time in her teens primping, piercing, dieting ... and that terrible tattoo, the rose they'd promised her wouldn't hurt but that nearly killed her as they sewed it into her skin, a permanent purple heart earned for naïveté in the face of a fad. She'd be buried, an old lady in a housedress, with that sexy teenage rose still blushing on her hip. Sometimes the thought of that made her sad; sometimes it made her laugh.

    She didn't worry much about her appearance anymore ... just enough to stay fit and wash her hair with Forever Blond once a week.

    She wore simple clothing. She liked silks and Asian prints, dangling earrings and bangles. Today she was wearing a pair of shiny black slacks and a turquoise blouse. The blouse was sheer, but she wore a black tank top under it. A thin silver chain around her neck. An armful of silver bangles that made music as she walked, steered, brushed her hair.

    Flat black shoes.

    She dressed her age and income level, but did it creatively ... a little exotic, like the artist underneath the soccer mom she was. She was, it always surprised her to be reminded, still sexy enough to be whistled at on occasion while crossing the street at a busy intersection. She hadn't expected that at forty. It was one of the many pleasant surprises of middle age.

    She glanced at herself in the rearview mirror.

    Her teeth were crooked, but her lips were pretty. She looked like the woman she'd wanted to be. Someday this will be your life, she used to think when she was a dreamy adolescent staring out the kitchen window of the apartment she shared with her divorced mother, fantasizing. Someday this will be your life, she thought to herself even now, as if it weren't, hearing her voice clearly in her own mind ... the voice of the woman she had become, the pretty mother licking lipstick off her front teeth, smiling politely at her own reflection.

    Summer ...

    And all the longing and damp hope of spring had finally amounted to something. At home the peonies had ruffled up in the front yard like the sleeves of a fancy blouse—but sticky, sweet, crawling with little red ants.

    The grass was green as eye shadow, green as satin.

    The sky was a piece of hard candy.

    And the bees hovered around the honeysuckle like tiny golden angels playing trumpets.

    The lilies had just begun to open, and a breeze made out of perfume was passing from the pure centers of them into the world.

Mr. McCleod is reading aloud from the textbook....

    He is fiddling with his glasses as he reads, and his hands tremble.


    Perhaps he's thinking of nicotine as he reads to the class about one-celled organisms becoming two.

    He hears the laughter of girls and looks up.

    From the opposite sides of the classroom, they've caught each other's eyes.

    They weren't trying to look at each other—they know better than that, know it will lead to uncontrollable laughter if their eyes meet across the room. But laughter is a vibrating wire strung between them. All they can do is avoid looking at one another, to keep from laughing. But as Mr. McCleod is reading, their eyes wander intuitively in the direction of Nate Witt—

    Nate Witt.

    The boy with the unfortunate name.

    Nit wit.

    The boy with the flat-green eyes.

    There are miles and miles of AstroTurf reflected in those eyes.

    He has a mean laugh and a habit of wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as if he's been boxing, as if he's just taken a punch to the jaw. He wears T-shirts with the names of bands and of baseball teams, faded jeans, and a pair of hiking boots every day. He's lean, with light brown hair, and neither girl has ever seen him laugh out loud, though they've seen him smile and smirk.

    Nate Witt sits slumped and oblivious in the center of the room ... stoned and openmouthed between them, and while they are trying to catch a glimpse of him from opposite ends of the biology classroom, they catch a glimpse of one another glimpsing at him and begin to laugh.

    "Is there a problem, girls?" Mr. McCleod asks.

    Both girls try to go expressionless, and shrug.

    "No," one of them says, though her eyes are wide and wet and she has to bite her lips.

    "No problem," the other says, raising her shoulders and letting them drop.

    There's laughter sliding all around her like an electric dress.

    Mr. MeCleod puts his face back in his book and continues to read.

Back home ... the honeysuckle. She had a lovely little garden waiting for her behind the house. A set of silver wind chimes dangling from a drainpipe under the eaves of the garage. In the breeze the wind chimes sounded like music made out of little girls' dreams ... charm bracelets, porcelain dolls, the kind of teacups so delicate and thin that if you held them to the light you could see through them.


Excerpted from The Life before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke. Copyright © 2002 by Laura Kasischke. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Laura Kasischke is the author of two novels and three collections of poetry. Her numerous awards include the Alice Fay DiCastagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Bobst Award for Emerging Writers. She lives in Chelsea, Michigan.

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The Life Before Her Eyes 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I havn't read the book but i just saw the movie!! It is OUTSTANDING i love it! i am going to go out and read the book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a book that sounds good on the cover, is really beautiful to read in some ways, but ultimately, I disliked. The author is a poet and her metaphors are often lovely, but the plot is both tedious and bizarre. I guess some people like weird stylistic endings, but I was just left feeling like what was the point? I think it could have been a much more interesting book if she had taken the plot in a more straightforward direction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A huge disapointment!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't get into this novel. Too fancy in prose. By the time you finish a whimsical sentence you will have forgotten the point.
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KACTX More than 1 year ago
Such an exciting story; a "must-read".
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tapestry100 More than 1 year ago
Laura Kasischke's The Life Before Her Eyes is quite a remarkable book. I picked it up well over a year ago on the recommendation of an independent bookstore owner, and read the prologue when I got home, knowing I was in the middle of a couple of other books at the time, but still wanting to get a taste of the book. After finishing the prologue, I felt that I had had a satisfying reading experience on just those 10 pages alone, and couldn't wait to get to reading the rest as soon as I could. That was October, 2008. The book has been sitting on my shelf, unread, ever since I'm ashamed to say. This week, Laura Kasischke was doing a reading and signing at my local bookstore, so I was determined to read through this book this week, and I'm just sorry that it has taken me so long to finally get around to reading such an amazing story. Diana and Maureen are best friends in high school. They do everything together, go everywhere together, are rarely separated. Their bright futures are still stretched out before them with all the potential that is available, until they are forced to make a decision that will alter that future forever: Which one of them is to die? We skip ahead to forty-something Diana and her life now, her husband, her daughter, her happy existence. However, something seems to be wrong. It almost seems like her life is unraveling at the seams all around her. She is seeing things that aren't necessarily there or shouldn't be there, she is having moods swings, she is having unexplainable flashbacks to her younger days. What does all of this mean for Diana and what does it have to do with her younger self. Kasischke's writing is so ethereal and atmospheric, it reads like a dream. We alternate between younger Diana and older Diana with a revolving narrative that has slight reflections from younger Diana onto older Diana's story. When the narrative is following Diana and Maureen, there is no real distinction between which girl is which, which seems fitting since they spend so much time together and are so connected, that there really is almost no distinction between them. As I progressed through the story and more became clear to me about what was happening for sure, I couldn't put the book down. I had a feeling I understood from the beginning what was happening but wasn't sure I quite had it, but when everything started to fall into place, the true power of the entire book was becoming clear to me. I know this is all very enigmatic, but I don't want to give anything away; the power of the story is in its unraveling. A truly powerful and amazing story that is beautifully written and not quite like anything that I have read before.
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Darin1952 More than 1 year ago
I just finished the book last night, after stumbling upon the DVD in October. The imagery is stunning, snapping one's attention to the beauty and tragedy that occur around us every day, within plain sight, yet so often are overlooked and taken for granted ... just as life so often is.

Takes the concept of "Choose life" far beyond its usual connotation.

Highly recommended for those who contemplate the choices they've made in life.
GirlLoveWarrior More than 1 year ago
"The Life Before Her Eyes" gives the reader a glimpse into the future of a girl who was faced with a fatal decision in high school. The writing is poetic, and at times maybe a little too poetic and a little too focused on the physical description of its characters but the storyline pulls everything together and makes it beautiful, sad and haunting. This won't let you stop thinking about it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved 'The Life Before Her Eyes'. Kasischke's language was breathtaking and gorgeous. I'm at a point in my own life where the world seems nonsensical at times, where I am questioning the true meaning of it all. I loved this theme in the book. 'It had been precisely at the moment that Diana had noticed that birds were missing that the world had filled up with birds again.' I think that as readers we all search for concrete answers and some may find themselves put off by the blurred reality of this story. However, that blurriness was exactly what fueled my reading. Many times there aren't clear cut reasons or answers, and though this is fiction, that gave the story more reality in my mind. Kasischke didn't try to fit her story into a neat little package, she let it seep out the sides. 'The Life Before Her Eyes' also brilliantly touches the philosophical issue of intentional good and intentional evil - do we always have choice, freewill? Where is that line drawn? Excellent.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The style of writing made the book hard to put down, but also made it hard to understand what was going on in the plot (what was imagination and what was reality?) Not recommended for those who like things a little more clear-cut
Guest More than 1 year ago
While this book is not perfect, it is still a joy to read. I found myself getting lost in the author's poetic imagery, while still being involved with the characters themselves. It's very easy to get lost in the reality of this book, a world where the past and present lives of Diana coexist throughout the narrative. The only criticism I would have of this book is the fact that at times the imagery is too overwhelming, and could be more simplified, and as a result of this sometimes the original focus is lost. Other than this, I found it to be very thought provoking, shocking, and poetic. Definitely recommended.