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 no insight whatsoever. 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. But what they discover about their father is even more devastating than their mother’s deteriorating health.
As the known world sinks precariously from view and leaves them all adrift, 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.
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About the Author
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
Education:B.A. in English, Rockford College, 1973
Read an Excerpt
The Breakdown Lane LP
by J. A. Gillis
The Sheboygan News-Clarion
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
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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.