Coming Up for Air: A Novel

Coming Up for Air: A Novel

by Patti Callahan Henry

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429940665
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/16/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 77,542
File size: 332 KB

About the Author

PATTI CALLAHAN HENRY is a full-time writer, wife and mother and the New York Times Bestselling author of seven novels with Penguin/NAL, including The Art of Keeping Secrets, Driftwood Summer and The Perfect Lovesong: A Holiday Story). She lives with her husband and three children outside Atlanta on the Chattahoochee River, where she is working on her next novel.


PATTI CALLAHAN HENRY is a New York Times bestselling author whose novels include The Stories We Tell, And Then I Found You, Between the Tides, and Driftwood Summer. Patti lives with her husband and three children in Mountain Brook, Alabama, where she is working on her next novel.

Read an Excerpt


Coming Up for Air
OneThere 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't--couldn't--love 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.MOTHER'S FUNERAL 
 
 
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 inappropriate--the 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 normal--our 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 Cotton--an 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 mother--contradictions 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.I nodded."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."We--your mother and I--didn't finish our interview. Would you ... talk to me when things calm down?"I nodded."Okay," he said, and let go of my hand. "I'll call you? Is that okay?""Yes.""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.Wildflowers.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.Hutch.We make our choices and then we live with them.Everyone does.COMING UP FOR AIR. Copyright © 2011 by Patti Callahan Henry. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

1. In Coming Up for Air, Patti Callahan Henry delves into the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, and how, often, they are not understood even after death. Do you think Ellie's relationship with her mother is true to life? Have you experienced or seen a relationship like theirs? How do you feel it compares to or is echoed by Ellie's relationship with her daughter, Lil?

2. Ellie reconnects with Hutch when she's in a very vulnerable place. Do you think Ellie's extraordinary circumstances influenced their reunion in any way, perhaps fast-tracking intimacy? Did Hutch just reenter her life at the right time? Or was it Hutch who awakened Ellie to the truth?

3. Ellie's mother's journal entries play a key role in Coming Up for Air—in what they reveal about Lily's past and how they define Ellie's choices in the present. How does having access to her mother's journal impact Ellie? Do you think it's okay to read someone's journal, even after they're gone? Would you be comfortable with someone reading yours?

4. In your opinion, what is the significance of the title Coming Up for Air? How does it tie into the larger themes of the novel, and into each character's personal story? Have you ever felt as if you needed to "come up for air" but were unable?

5. Ellie reads in her mother's journals that Lily missed out on love when she was younger, a pivotal moment that fundamentally changed who she was. How do you think heartbreak defined Lily—as a woman and as a mother? Do you think it's true to life that one powerful heartbreak can ruin or profoundly impact someone's life in this way? If heartbreak can impact us in this way, what are our choices in how?

6. Coming Up for Air takes place in the South—where Patti Callahan Henry is from, and where she tends to set her novels. Are you drawn to the Southern setting? What do you think makes the South so intriguing to novelists and readers in general?

7. Do you agree or sympathize with Ellie's choices in the end of the novel? How do you think you might have acted in her situation? Similarly? Differently? Have you ever had to make a choice that you knew would hurt someone you love, but was the right one for you?

Customer Reviews

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Coming up for Air 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im a 20 year old woman and I felt this story was excellent! It's a must read for women in general. I really enjoyed the writing style, I found it easy to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great story about strength, secrets, and love set in a beautiful, southern landscape. It left me inspired to never settle. I couldn't put this down!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books. Ellie is your ordinary forty-something woman coming to some realizations about her life after her mother's death. I am from Alabama, graduated from Auburn University and only someone from Alabama could describe with such detail especially The War Eagle Supper Club. How refreshing! Every woman should read this book especially if you are forty something or just at a crossroad in your life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down. I could relate to the time period of Lily's journal. It only took me a weekend, and I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a disappointment! The story is boring, the characters implausible and generally unlikeable, the writing awkward and amateurish, with tiresome attempts at similes and metaphors that look as though it was part of the writing assignment to hit a quota. I often found myself re-reading the same sentence several times trying to make sense of it because of the awkward wording or phrasing. As for the "big mystery," you won't even care what it is, because the characters are so self absorbed and annoying. I hate it when I feel as if I've wasted my money on a book!
TBee More than 1 year ago
With a mysterious flare, Patti C. Henry weaves a tail about a woman discovering a secret past that shocked her regarding her recently deceased mother. It is a time of discovery and realization from the present & the past. This story brought real issues alive in facing a parent's death. I could relate to the content and characters of this excellent book. Having read all of Patti Henry's books, I believe that each one is better than the last! Look forward to her next tale.
Enamoredsoul on LibraryThing 11 months ago
"Coming Up for Air" by Patti Callahan Henry is a beautiful story about reconciling your past with your present. Ellie's mother Lillian has passed away, and while Ellie is taking care of, and sorting through, her belongings she comes across her mother's journal locked away from the eyes of the world. This discovery raises many questions for Ellie who, in order to find answers for them, decides to leave her home and husband in Atlanta to travel to Alabama to stay with her mother's best friend, Miss Birdie. In the meantime, Ellie's ex-boyfriend, and her first-love, surprises her by showing up at her mother's funeral - it turns out that he is doing a documentary on ten women and Lillian, Ellie's mother, is one of them.So together Ellie and Hutch try and uncover the real Lillian, before she was a mother and a wife, who she really was. And in trying to uncover the mysteries of her mother's past, Ellie learns a lot about her own self, her marriage and her life. It is this journey within her own self, and coming to the conclusions that she does, that results in Ellie's "Coming Up For Air".Patti Callahan Henry is indeed, as the blurb suggests, a tour de force. When I won this novel, and looking at it's cover, I thought it would be a sugary sweet, rot your teeth out sweet, kind of a novel. But I was pleasantly shocked to find out that it is nothing of the sort. Although author Patti Callahan Henry sure knows how to spin a romantic tale, she knows its place in the narrative, and never forces the romance beyond its bounds. Although, I must admit, this author definitely knows how to characterize the dynamics between different relationships. And although the narrative deals with the Civil Rights Movement, ethics and social inequities, it never ends up being preachy or tedious. I also love that this tale is set in the South - anywhere else, and this story may have fallen flat. I love the dialect, the way of life, and the tales/stories that emerge from the South - they have a culture of their own down there, and it is absolutely beautiful to read about.All in all, "Coming Up For Air" really was like coming up for air for me. My past few reads have been really fast-paced thrillers. This books incorporates some mystery into its narrative and is very well-paced, but it is far more about the characters within the novel, than it is about the mystery to be uncovered. I loved being able to connect with Ellie on various levels, and at times with Lillian as well. This book was a breath of fresh air, and I am really looking forward to more by author Patti Callahan Henry. It's a beautifully written novel, and one I would recommend to anyone who enjoys reading about family dynamics, family secrets, the Civil Rights Movement, or generally about "the South". Enjoy! :)
bookbug4life on LibraryThing 11 months ago
I received this book as a Goodreads First Reads! The first edition will be released in Sept. 2011.Overall, I liked this book. It is chick lit through and through with a familiar theme of ¿dissatisfied¿ women in their marriages. Both mother and daughter cannot seem to let go of the past and ¿young love¿ and the fantasy (life would be so perfect if¿) that goes along with it. In this area of their lives they both seemed silly and immature. The descriptions of Bayside, AL were beautiful and gave the book a wonderful, vacation like atmosphere. I especially enjoyed the description of Jubilee. It was a good summer read that moved along at a nice pace.
sb631 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
"We all become the person we are from the person we were"- Uncle Cotton. I thought this quote from the book really fit well with the story!Coming Up for Air is about a daughter who is determined to figure out her mothers past. Ellie's mother passed away and that is when she finds an old journal that her mother would write in every New Years Eve. After reading the journal, Ellie becomes determined to find out who this 'him' person her mothers mentions. That is when she leaves her home and moves to a Summer House in Alabama. She is in search of Him and answers to questions she has about her mothers past. She is in search for the truth and the past that her mother never mentioned before to anyone. At times I was not a fan of Ellie. She came off as selfish at times, for leaving her husband and family, but then at times I thought that everyone has a different way of handling their grief. So I was half and half on her character. But putting aside that, I really enjoyed this book. I think this book has great meaning and insight in it. There were so many quotes and things that happen that make you think. Overall, great book!!
Beamis12 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
I just love southern novels, the freshness and the mysteries of family. When Ellie's mother dies she finds her diary and secrets in her mother's past that she needs answers to because she feels that she never really knew her mother. This leads her back to a childhood love and a beach house, where she discovers answers about her mother, her marriage and ultimately herself.
thehistorychic on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Bought for MyselfOverall Rating 4.25Character Rating 4.25Story Rating 4.25NOTE: I admit I picked up this book because I met Patti Callahan Henry at a Book Signing. She was funny, genuine, and personable---all attributes that come across in her writing. It was a great venture outside my normal reading comforts!What I Loved: This book was written for every daughter that isn't/wasn't/can't be sure they have/are/could live up the perceived expectations of their mothers. Even though this book is set in the south, I think everyone who has been a daughter and/or has a daughter could identify with the story. The most wonderful thing in Coming Up for Air is the connection formed through a few journal entries that Ellie finds in a journal that her mother Lillian kept. Even though there is only one entry a year (every New Years Eve), the story that unfolds is richly told and very emotional. Grab a hanky, you will need it at points. I don't want to give away any plot points but there are several interactions that tugged at my heart.What I Liked: So many of the questions that Coming Up for Air asks are built to make you think! I don't think it was probably done on purpose but the story is a good catalyst for remembering to live your life fully and truly.Complaints: NoneWhy I Gave it a 4.25: Contemporary Fiction is not something that general lands on my reading radar. I am glad that this book did because it was fantastically written.
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LindaR58 More than 1 year ago
My lucky find, new to this author and first read.  Wonderful story told, full of wisdom and experience, and one I will be recommending to all I know.  Give yourself the gift of reading this one,
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This is my first book by Patti--it was very good and held my interest. Sometimes those first loves stay with you forever as it did with Elli.
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Finally a great read for a forthy something woman. A story about love, secrets and sacrifices. It was inspiraing. As I read the pages I felt it was talking about my feelings. Enjoyed reading it.
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