Things We Didn’t Say, Kristina Riggle’s third novel, explores the fecund, complicated morass of personal history and how our stories haunt us even as we try to leave them behind. Narrated in chapters that alternate points of view, Things We Didn’t Say introduces Michael, a divorced dad with three school-aged children; Michael’s younger, live-in fiancée Casey; and his ex-wife Mallory. As these six people encircle one another, we learn who they are, who they want to be, and the perilous gulf that lies between.
In Things We Didn’t Say, Riggle examines the notion of family, broadly defined. Casey and Mallory are, in different ways, mother to Michael’s three children, and through these maternal figures the reader gains appreciation for the various meanings of motherhood. The roots of biological motherhood run deep, of course, and Riggle herself is a mother of two, a fact that surely informed her frank and intimate delving into this essential relationship. Mallory asserts her maternal relationship to the children, saying that Casey “just doesn’t get it. When you’re not a parent it’s hard to understand…” But Casey’s relationship with the children is also strong and maternal: in an early scene, she pours cereal, ruffles hair, and asks about classes the kids would have that day.
Things We Didn’t Say takes us through a single day in the lives of our six characters. The story opens as Casey writes a farewell note: despite her seemingly solid relationship, she has decided to leave Michael and his children. Riggle poignantly describes Casey’s heavy heart as she contemplates life alone. She feels torn by her departure, guilty and miserable, but also certain that leaving is the only way out of deepening silence and growing resentment. “If it hurts this much to walk out this door, does that mean I should stay?” Casey asks, going on to remind herself that “vaccinations hurt, too. Surgery hurts. Exercise hurts. Sometimes pain is necessary.” Riggle pulls the reader into Casey’s internal conflict but does not disclose its source. We know Casey loves Michael and the kids, yet she is compelled to leave them. This tension creates forward momentum in the story.
As Casey packs her bag that morning, however, her cell phone rings. She sees that it is Dylan’s high school phoning and, after hesitating for three rings, she picks up and learns that Dylan did not arrive at school. That the school called her rather than Mallory underlines Casey’s current role as Dylan’s mother — her phone is the emergency number; she is responsible — and heightens our anxiety over her impending departure. Dylan’s absence redirects both Casey and the narrative as it sends the whole family reeling.
Over the course of the book, the day-long search for Dylan, we wonder if Casey will stay, and while we do not doubt the authenticity of her impulse, we still do not understand its genesis. The chapters in Casey’s voice are tinged by our knowledge that she wants to go, and by her profound ambivalence about her future with Michael. Sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette, for example, her eyes swim with tears as she thinks about leaving. She remembers first meeting Michael; they were at an urgent care clinic and Casey recalls the way Michael rubbed circles on his sick daughter’s back, the mix of strength and vulnerability Casey saw in his eyes. “Here at the end,” Casey notes, “I can’t help think about the beginning.”
As we get to know Casey, we learn that her compulsion to leave, and her disenchantment with the life she had imagined with Michael, is rooted in her inability to disclose her real self: her guilt over her brother’s harrowing, drinking-related death, and her family soaked in alcoholism and addiction. In flashback, we discover that Casey fell in love with Michael and his relative stability soon after she gave up drinking and reconciled with her own family. This past makes Casey doubt her ability to be a good mother and partner, and her reluctance to share her past with Michael may make readers doubt the depth of their bond. Casey, we find, is her last name; she has never told Michael her first name. While this is only one of the “things we didn’t say,” it is surely the most essential.
As Casey, Michael and Mallory work together to find Dylan, we also learn more about Mallory’s complicated relationship with her children and ex-husband. We begin to understand Mallory’s grandiose gestures of both hysteria and love, her intense moods and her own history of addiction. When Mallory returns to Michael’s home, in the midst of the narrative’s crisis, she and Angel, the eldest child, find themselves doing dishes. Angel notes with surprise that it is “kind of nice…so…normal,” thereby revealing how abnormal their relationship has grown. But just as Mallory edges toward becoming a sympathetic character, we see her malicious and manipulative side and watch Michael and Casey almost fall prey to her vicious string-pulling.
It is a testament to Kristina Riggle’s skill as a writer that Casey, Mallory and Michael are represented as human, full of contradictions and flaws but also capable of deep emotion and fierce loyalty to those they love. In particular, Riggle portrays Casey as a woman who, despite having made mistakes and caused great pain, operates from a core of good intentions and genuine humanity. Riggle’s writing is clear and crisp, and imbued with deep emotion. When Dylan finally calls to say where he is, for example, he phones Casey. Mallory, overcome with relief, shoves Casey aside to answer the call, but Casey knows her relationship can withstand the challenge: “I…allow myself a bittersweet recognition that when Dylan decided to call home, he called me.”
Dylan is finally brought home. All three parents have worked together and succeeded, but tension among mother-roles doesn’t end here. Soon after Dylan returns, his sister, eight-year-old Jewel, starts to jump on the couch with a candy in her mouth. Casey tells her to stop, but Mallory dismisses the warning, saying it’s fine. Jewel then chokes on her candy, and in the blurry moments of panic that ensue it is Casey who successfully performs the Heimlich and clears Jewel’s airway. Again, questions of motherhood hover in the air. Jewel’s biological mother stands in the living room, yet she left the children long ago; Casey saved Jewel’s life. She seems a responsible and loving mother, yet also wants to leave. In this scene, Riggle underscores that motherhood can be a heavy mantle. Who wears that mantle here? The woman who bore these children, or the woman who staggers on, even when the weight feels too much? In the aftermath of the choking episode, amid all the screaming and crying, an exhausted Jewel throws her arms around Casey’s neck and holds onto her hard. “I’m holding Jewel and crying for what was almost lost to everyone, and is still lost to me,” Casey thinks, revealing that she still plans to leave the family.
The single day of Dylan’s disappearance contains a lifetime. Yet, with Dylan home and Jewel safe, Casey still feels that she must go. Unable to bear the trap she’s built by not revealing herself long ago, she finally walks out. For hours she walks in the cold, and she is “struck that it doesn’t matter now. Kid bedtimes, homework routines, band practices, all of it has winked out of my life at once. It’s only me again, and no one cares when I do anything.” This is an unnerving moment. The reader has now invested in Casey’s relationship with the children, in the idea of her as a maternal savior.
The final scenes of the book are thoughtful, believable, and as full of heart and humanity as the entirety of Things We Didn’t Say. Riggle provides an insightful, suspenseful story that urges readers to look closely at family life, at motherhood, and at blended families in particular. Ultimately, Riggle reminds us that there are aspects of ourselves, especially as mothers, that we can’t outrun. If these are withheld from those we love, they loom as shadows over our lives. In the clear light of disclosure, though, these “things we didn’t say” may help bridge that gulf between who we are and who we hope to be.