The Breakdown Lane

The Breakdown Lane

by Jacquelyn Mitchard


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The Breakdown Lane by Jacquelyn Mitchard

An advice columnist for a local newspaper, Julieanne Gillis dispenses wisdom to her readers, but somehow missed the signs that something was amiss in her own home. Devoted to being a good mother and keeping her twenty-year marriage fresh and exciting, she is shocked by her husband's surprise announcement that he needs a “sabbatical” from their life together—and devastated when he disappears, leaving Julie with no funds to raise two teenagers and a small daughter alone. But it is the discovery that Julieanne suffers from a serious illness that truly crumbles her family's foundation—setting her children on a dangerous, quixotic journey to locate their missing father before it's too late.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061374524
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/25/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,094,744
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

New York Times bestseller Jacquelyn Mitchard's novels include The Deep End of the Ocean, Twelve Times Blessed, and The Breakdown Lane. She is also the author of The Rest of Us: Dispatches from the Mother Ship, a collection of her newspaper columns. She lives with her husband and six children in Madison, Wisconsin.


Madison, Wisconsin

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


B.A. in English, Rockford College, 1973

Read an Excerpt

The Breakdown Lane LP

Chapter One


Excess Baggage
by J. A. Gillis
The Sheboygan News-Clarion

Dear J.,

I'm getting married next summer, to a man of another nationality. Both families are very happy, but there is a problem. His many female relatives -- aunts, grandmothers, and sisters -- must sit in the front row, as is their right. As descendants of the Masai in Africa, they are very tall. My family is Japanese-American. We are small -- in number and in size. My father is only five feet four, my sisters less than five feet. The wedding will take place in a hotel ballroom with chairs set up in rows. We did not want to have a "bride's" side and a "groom's" side, because we want this to be a true blending of families. However, I know that the women in my fiancé's family are going to wear large, decorative hats (I don't mean ceremonial headdresses, as these are African AMERICANS of many generations, but what my fiancé refers to as "church-lady" hats, which are the size of our wedding cake). This will make them even taller, and so no one except my mother and father will be able to see me during the ceremony. I don't want to suggest that they "move to the back of the bus" for my family. So how can we avoid slighting anyone on our special day? Given the disparity of heights, the wedding dance will also be very awkward.

Nervous in Knudson

Dear Nervous,

This is a matter of some sensitivity, since tensions on a wedding day can leave a bitter taste that can linger for years. But nerves? You've already probably got the once-in-a-lifetime jitters every bride endures. Don't add this small opportunity for creativity to your checklist of stress. With the same joy of life you've already demonstrated by your beautifully bold choice to mingle cultures, craft a circle of joy. Ask the staff at the hotel to place the wedding chairs in a wide circle with the first row reserved for the principal members of both families and the rest of the chairs in staggered rows behind, so that each person, regardless of heights, will enjoy a wonderful view. Guests will be escorted through a small opening, the same place your groom will enter with his parents, a few moments before you enter with yours. Make the altar or other ceremonial platform in the center "a round," also -- perhaps exchanging your vows facing in one direction, conducting the ceremonies of rings or candles facing the other, with the transitions gracefully made to instrumental music or song. As for the dance! No one feels awkward at such a happy affair! Think of all the aunts and grandmas you've seen dancing the polka in groups of five!


Let's begin at the end of the beginning. The first moment of the second act of our lives.

It was ballet class. It was the second class of the week, made up of dance combinations and mat Pilates. Steady on the studio floor, I was ready to begin my final stretches. I remember that, a wonderful feeling. I was spent, but pleasurably, my hips not so much aching as aware they'd been asked for something strenuous. This class, and my weight training were the times during my week I felt freed from strain, just shy of pure.

I extended my right leg along the floor in its customary turnout -- posturally correct, erect on my sitz bones, a little bit smug, but trying not to glance around me to observe that other women, even younger women, noticed the way my flexibility still came easily -- and leaned forward for the hamstring stretch.

What I saw when I looked down horrified me so much that my mind scrabbled away from me, across the birchy floor.

What was it?

Numb shard of bone? Foot clawed birdlike, in spasm?

Worse. It was ... nothing.

Nothing was different than what I'd seen when I sat down five seconds earlier. It was only my leg, my ordinary leg in the unsoiled glove of my unitard (the silver one my youngest daughter used to call my "mermaid clothes") still bent in a forty-five-degree angle at the knee, my pointed toe nestled against my thigh.

Doesn't sound like much, does it?

You have a right to expect more of terrors. Sharp, single shriek on a silent street. Pea-sized lump your finger grazes as you soap your breast. Tang of smoke in the still air, footsteps' rhythm matching your own, in the dusk of an empty parking lot. A shadow that jumps against a wall in a room in which you know you are alone.

But think! A thing so huge it will dismember your world can be invisible. It can be a germ. A scent. It can be an absence.

You see, I had felt my leg open smoothly, like a knife with a well-balanced mechanism. But it had not.

A cascade of thoughts, like the fountain from a child's sparkler, showered over me: the phantom limb phenomenon, the precursor to a stroke, a paralysis caused by some virus. My first instinct was to scream. Instead, like any sane person, I tried again.

My leg refused.

Metallic, icy sweat burst from my pores, bathing my face and neck, painting gleaming half-moons under my breasts. I dampened like a true mermaid in my "mermaid's clothes." From the corner of my eye, I glanced at my friend, Cathy, who took the class with me, as her arms branched and she arched down over her own leg. Her eyes, closed in concentration, suddenly flipped up, like one of those old venetian blinds, as if she'd heard a crack, a clap, as if I truly had screamed. She looked at me, quizzically, one eyebrow a beckoning finger. I grinned ...

The Breakdown Lane LP. Copyright © by Jacquelyn Mitchard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide


Giving advice is what Julianne Ambrose Gillis does for a living: Every Sunday she doles it out to "clueless" people she doesn't know, in a column in her local Wisconsin paper. But when it comes to her personal life, Julie seems to have missed some clues. She has worked hard to keep her marriage fresh and to be a good mother, so it's a mystery when Leo, her husband of twenty years, decides to defect from their life together and their three children, Gabe, Caroline, and Aury.

In his absence, Julie is diagnosed with a serious illness, which drives her children to undertake a dangerous journey to find Leo -- before it's too late. As the known world sinks precariously from view and leaves them all adrift, the members of the Gillis clan must navigate their way through the trenches of love, guilt, and betrayal back to solid ground and a new definition of family.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What kinds of columns does Julianne Gillis write for the Sheboygan News-Clarion? How does she get her job in the first place, and what does it eventually lead to? Why does the tone of her columns change over the course of The Breakdown Lane?

  2. Describe Julie and Leo's marriage: what connects them as a couple, and what distances them from each other? What do you think explains Leo's disappearance?

  3. What aspects of the family life described in The Breakdown Lane resonated with your own experiences? Did Jacquelyn Mitchard capture marriage, parenting, separation, pregnancy, divorce, remarriage, or adoption in a way that reminded you of some of these phases in your life?

  4. What unconventional help do Julie's family and friends offer her and her family during Leo's absence? What drastic and difficult economic measures must Julie make to keep her family afloat? What did you think of these compromises?

  5. What are some of the physical symptoms Julianne experiences prior to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis? What are some of the emotional changes she undergoes as she begins the medical course of treatment for her disease?

  6. How do Gabe, Caroline, and Aurora interact with each other as siblings? What do you think explains their different reactions to their mother's illness and their parents' separation?

  7. How does Gabe's learning disability color his perspective on life? Why does he decide to drop out of high school? How does his friendship with Tian change him?

  8. Describe the "hippie lifestyle" that Leo seeks. When Gabe and Caroline go looking for Leo, what do they encounter? How does what they find affect them and their relationships with their father?

  9. Who is Matthew MacDougall and how does Julie reconnect with him? What kind of life does her promise her and her children, and how does he fulfill that promise?

  10. What did you think of the end of The Breakdown Lane? How did you feel on learning that Julianne Gillis was a pseudonym?

About the Author

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the New York Times bestselling author of Twelve Times Blessed, A Theory of Relativity, The Deep End of the Ocean, The Most Wanted, and The Rest of Us, a collection of her columns that are nationally syndicated by Tribune Media. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and six children.

Customer Reviews

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Breakdown Lane 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Page turner
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
I actually picked up this book on the recommendation of--don't laugh!--Stephen King. As one of the ten books he recommended for late summer reads in an issue of Entertainment Weekly Magazine, the premise hooked me.

The book centers around a woman who not only loses her husband to a wacky desire to live a simpler and more-fulfilling life, but has to single-handedly raise two teenagers and a young daughter by herself, all while dealing with her diagnosis of MS.

THE BREAKDOWN LANE is women's fiction at its best. I actually enjoyed the two first-person accounts that make up the book (it's in the form of a journal belonging to the mother and one written by the son). Although it does end up with a rather happily-ever-after ending, this book details life in all its ups and downs--and you'll appreciate being along for the ride.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although Julieanne offers helpful advice via a weekly column in a local newspaper, she was oblivious to the warning signs that her own twenty-year marriage was about to collapse. When her husband, Leo announces that the pressure of domesticity is weighing him down and needs a six month 'time-out' Julieanne pleads with him to reconsider. He doesn't. He takes off, with the empty promise of returning in six monts, to a commune far away from home. He doesn't even leave a forwarding address. With the recently acquired status of single parent and breadwinner of three (two teens and a toddler) Julieanne is stressed beyond belief. That stress is followed by puzzling medical symptoms that are soon diagnosed as MS. The reader goes along on the journey with this family guided by the voice of Julieanne and her mildly disabled teen son, Gabe. Gabe's voice will touch any mother's heart. He's been victimized by his peers due to his LD but the reader quickly learns that Gabe possesses depth and sensitivity and intelligence that would make any mother proud. When his mother becomes too ill to properly care for baby Aury, Gabe steps up to the plate without complaining. We don't get Julieanne's daughter Caroline's perspective through her own voice, but we're made aware that Caroline seems too self-absorbed to be affected by the unraveling of her family. Later, we learn that Caroline was simply using the only coping skills she could access during the most troubling and confusing time of her life. Caroline concocts a plan for damage control: go to the commune and fetch the father who deserted them. Surely once he finds gets a first hand account of the terrible troubles at home, he'll come running back, shame-faced and begging for forgiveness. Dad, however, is none too happy to see his two offspring. He's already started another family with a younger woman. Amazingly, this family bonds together and with the help of a family friend and new rich husband for Julieanne, there's a happily ever after for everyone. Even baby Aury. A touching read, which Mitchard tied up nicely at the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Especially important that spurned wives use poetry tohelp the Deal with their feelings nancy olson m
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I questioned my judgement in buying this book -my mom was diagnosed with MS when I was 14 & I thought it might be too emotional for me. I was sucked into the story pretty quickly. It is a great story, with characters ranging from a jerk of a husband & a self centered daughter to a son that every mother would love to have. I fell in love with her in-laws & the way they stood by her, ashamed of their son's departure. A happy, but not sappy, fairy tail type ending.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Page turner. I could not put down the book. I read this book in 2 days.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very heart warming book, filled with ups and downs in the family life of writer that ends up with MS. Learning to live again after things fall apart, but never giving up and a happy ending. I lovedthe two perspectives, Jules and Gabes in the journals that they kept. What a family endures and goes thru, capitvated me and kept me engrossed. It was so real like to me as if I was reading in secret or watching from the outside looking in.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I actually picked up this book on the recommendation of--don't laugh!--Stephen King. As one of the ten books he recommended for late summer reads in an issue of Entertainment Weekly Magazine, the premise hooked me. The book centers around a woman who not only loses her husband to a wacky desire to live a simpler and more-fulfilling life, but has to single-handedly raise two teenagers and a young daughter by herself, all while dealing with her diagnosis of MS. THE BREAKDOWN LANE is women's fiction at its best. I actually enjoyed the two first-person accounts that make up the book (it's in the form of a journal belonging to the mother and one written by the son). Although it does end up with a rather happily-ever-after ending, this book details life in all its ups and downs--and you'll appreciate being along for the ride.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've red most of her other books and loved them. As someone with MS, I was very keen to read this one, but found it disappointing. Some aspects were poorly researched (particularly the treatments used), which let down the bits that were on the mark for MS. I found myself more attracted by interplay of the other characters, especially the children, than the main character. She came across as more flat and one dimensional, defined pretty much by her disease. The development of the other characters was more interesting to me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was interested in reading this book after hearing from fellow readers that the main character deals with MS. I am a person with MS and I found that she protrayed the MS in a positive way. A person with MS does not do well with stress of any kind. I felt as if she had used parts of my life as research for this book. Many people with MS are diagnosed shortly after something very stressful has happened in their life. I can only hope that this book will help people better understand the illness. One moment you can be fine and the next unable to think correctly, walk, sight can be affected as well as speech. Thank You for this information.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading the back of the book I thought I would be amazing. Lackluster to say the least. I wasn't thrilled to say the least. Actually managed to finish it though and then I gave it to a friend may be they can appericate it cause I can't
Guest More than 1 year ago
I simply couldn't put this book down. I could identify with nearly every character in this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Few authors plumb the depths of human emotion as deftly as Jackie Mitchard (Was there a dry eye at the conclusion 'The Deep End of the Ocean'?) Once again she explores the nooks and crannies of love, family and human relationships in the story of Julieanne Gillis. Actress Anna Fields does a superb job of occupying two narrative voices, that of Julieanne and her learning disabled teenage son, Gabe. As Julieanne, she is torn, angry, brave and resilient. With Gabe she gives voice to a young man who is forced to learn very early what can happen when a marriage not only bends but breaks. Married for 20 years to Leo, a not terribly successful lawyer, Julieanne has given birth to three children, two now in their early teens, the third just out of babyhood. She dispenses advice through a column in the local newspaper in their Wisconsin town. She's happy, devoted to her children, and her friends. Sorry the same can't be said for Leo. Think selfish, inconsiderate, or to put it more bluntly 'a real loser' and you have a pretty good picture of him. Seems he's decided he wants to take a break from hearth and home to live in a commune. Off he goes leaving Julieanne and the children behind. He doesn't even leave a forwarding address. When Julieanne is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she has no idea how she can continue being a single parent. Gabe, a son any mother would love, and his sister take off in search of their errant father. 'The Breakdown Lane' is both riveting drama and eloquent reminder of the mysteries of love. - Gail Cooke
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and couldn't put it down. This is one of Jacquelyn Mitchard's best books yet. It keeps you on your toes wondering what's going to happen next with this woman's life and her family. What a strong woman.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Plan on skipping meals and staying up late!!!! Jacqueline Mitchard has created a BLOCKBUSTER story, about a family of lost souls. Julieanne Gillis, a sweet Wisconsin housewife with a too-comfortable marriage and three kids, makes a meager living writing an advice column for a local paper. Blinded by the great advice she gives so freely to others, she fails to see the daily boredom that oozes from her own husband's pores. Once a ravishing dancer, she suddenly finds herself ravaged by a crumbling marriage and a tsunami of disease; Multiple Sclerosis. Her oldest children must leave Wisconsin to find their deadbeat dad, only to find themselves in the process. This riveting novel has many detours and 'breakdown lanes,' and like real life, runs the gamut of emotions. GREAT, GREAT READ!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was so engaging, I did not want to put it down. The story is of ordinary people facing major challenges, except in 'The Breakdown Lane' all of them hit at once. Julianne is a successful advice columnist; she has a home and a family and a life that seems to be going smoothly along on cruise control. But she suddenly has the rug pulled out from under her and she finds herself without a husband, raising 3 children alone, and being diagnosed with a devastating illness that will literally knock her flat. Although difficult, none of these challenges are insurmountable by themselves. But Julianne has everything dropped upon her at once, and when the dust clears, she is alone and the horizon looks very dark. This book is not depressing; it is funny and poignant, sad and uplifting.I attribute this all to Ms. Mitchard's ability to craft a story that is realistic and believable. Her characters' voices are real. Her writing is right on the mark with dialogue, and her insight into Julianne's feelings is touching and true. I found myself wanting to shake her cad of a husband, and hug her son Gabe when he reaches down inside himself to help her. This novel is like a jigsaw puzzle that was finished, and then knocked off the card table. It gets put back together, but some of the pieces are missing. The puzzle is the same, the picture just looks a little different. This is an excellent book. I enjoyed reading it and know it will make a great selection for my book discussion group. I highly recommend it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The storyline is slow and sad..... if you are an active attentive dad you will hate this book - the father is complete loser / deadbeat scum and the wife/mother is an enabler of the first order - neither of whom have the childrens best interests in mind or heart - wraps up neatly and quickly and for once I was grateful for this type of ending - it was the best part.