The Gap Year
By Sarah Bird
Reviewed by Lindsey Mead
The Gap Year is a laugh-out-loud funny book about motherhood’s rawest and most difficult task: letting go. That Sarah Bird manages to make a story about such a profoundly emotional topic hilarious is a testament to her brilliant writing. In The Gap Year Cam Lightsey, a single mother whose husband left her for a cult religion 16 years ago, grapples with her daughter Aubrey’s threat not to go to college. Told through Cam’s and Aubrey’s alternate perspectives, and in voices memorable, clear, and honest, The Gap Year shows us a back and forth dance of mother-daughter intimacy and separation.
Sarah Bird has created two vividly human characters. Cam is a lactation consultant, the very embodiment of maternal attachment. She is funny, wise, and vivacious, and has poured her heart into raising her daughter alone. When Aubrey describes starting the day with her mother as like “being woken up by a Japanese game-show contestant,” we can instantly visualize Cam’s enthusiasm, as well as Aubrey’s teenage exasperation with such indefatigable energy. Cam is also full of hilarious one-liners: “But I seize upon it like a vegetarian backsliding with a bucket of KFC,” she says of her stance in a familiar and fruitless argument with her ex-husband. As their argument continues, she describes how “going beyond sarcasm to out-and-out insult is delicious, like wriggling out of a pair of Spanx.”
Amidst all the humor, though, Cam’s experience of mothering a teen contains flashes of true pathos. In one scene she sits on her daughter’s bed and listens to a song from Toy Story 2, remembering her toddler daughter nestled on her lap watching the movie for the first time in the theater. I am sure most mothers can relate to the way memories glint constantly through daily life with children, reminding us of the brilliance of those moments and of their irrevocable loss. It is clear that Cam and Aubrey’s relationship is a very strong one, built on mutual affection and respect. Even as Aubrey’s efforts to define herself strains their bond, Cam can feel that “an umbilical connection joins us and I feel her anguish as surely as if she were kicking me beneath my heart.”
Aubrey, too, is a poignant character, a “quiet, ordinary” girl in the high school marching band who finds herself suddenly the object of the star quarterback’s attentions. As she and the golden, popular “Ty-Mo,” Tyler Moldenhauer, build a friendship that turns into a love affair, Aubrey’s sense of herself shifts on its axis. She leaves the band and sheds her rule-abiding, good-girl behavior. She starts to imagine not going to college, which is her mother’s worst nightmare. Her estranged father, with whom she’s had no contact in 16 years, friends her on Facebook and they commence a surreptitious conversation. Aubrey initially hides both of these relationships from her mother, and it is this deceit that begins their relationship’s slide into difficulty.
Cam is the beating heart of The Gap Year, which is essentially an exploration of her letting go, both her daughter and of the way she thought her life would be. When her ex-husband returns and they work together to find Aubrey, who has then disappeared, we see Cam grappling with the presence of this man she never thought she’d see again on her porch, in her house, in her life. They find their way back to an unimagined truce, and she notes that he “took a different route than I did to arrive back at us together.”
Cam’s embrace of a life whose contours are radically different than she had anticipated is both brave and mature. The romantic relationship that began on a train in Morocco, with a man who was like “crack cocaine” to her, held both heartbreak and, ultimately, redemption. Equally, the bond begun with Aubrey in the hospital, when she was to her infant daughter the source of all comfort, nutrition, and vitality, may indeed endure the enormous strains of adolescence, growing up and growing apart.