Life on Earth

Life on Earth

By Miriam R. Kramer

What is the love that creates and shapes you, and how do you bear its loss? How do you not only survive but also live? How do you create a community when you’ve lost all the love you knew? In Ann Napolitano’s new novel, Dear Edward, Jane and Bruce Adler, and their two sons, Jordan and Eddie, are moving across the country on a flight from Newark to Los Angeles to start a new life. When their plane crashes, only one of the 192 passengers and crew survives: twelve-year-old Eddie. In his hospital bed Eddie becomes Edward. Tragedy formalizes him and forces him to enter adolescence as an indefinable combination of child and adult.

In Dear Edward, Napolitano has created a lovely, accessible novel and an unusual page-turner. The narrative proceeds along two tracks. In one, she relates the stories of the usual disparate grouping of passengers heading across the country together to an uncertain future, including the then-Eddie and his family.

In the other narrative, Edward has to adjust to a radically new existence. Recovering in the hospital, he remains traumatized and unresponsive. With the country fascinated by him and the crash, he receives a condolence call from the President of the United States and gains fame as the “Miracle Boy.” His uncle and aunt, John and Lacey Curtis, come to pick him up and take him back to their home in New Jersey.

As Edward heals painfully and slowly, he meets his new next-door neighbors. Single mother Besa introduces herself and her daughter, Shay, who is also 12. After having spent his life sleeping in a room with his brother, Edward gravitates towards this girl his age. He alleviates his almost unbearable loneliness and trauma by spending most of his time with her as he gets ready to start school.

Through switching back and forth between Edward’s current life and the lives lived on the flight, Napolitano creates a compulsively readable book. She tells the stories of a group of people on the plane who are planning for meetings, new lives in California, fresh starts, drug trials to cure cancer, and other ventures. Eddie and his brother, Jordan, are nervous about starting over in California after having lived in New York their whole lives. Their father, Bruce, an academic, regrets his inability to get tenure at Columbia, as his wife, Jane, looks forward to a new opportunity to write TV shows in Los Angeles. Benjamin, a muscular, wounded soldier returning from Afghanistan, ponders his past and decides to figure out who he is outside of his Army identity.

Mark Lassio, a young multimillionaire hungry to make and close deals, meditates on his former dysfunctional cocaine use. In first class, he offers homage to Crispin Cox, an abrasive plastics magnate with cancer who has been one of his role models. Crispin, in his eighties, sardonically observes this upcoming kid eager to prove himself, realizing that he no longer cares about his own long-time presence on the yearly Forbes list. He thinks of his four ex-wives and wishes that he had spent more time with his kids.

Mark admires a savvy flight attendant, Veronica, in first class, and gets her attention in a way that makes both feel exhilarated and alive. Florida, a joyful free spirit who believes in reincarnation, tries to help Linda Stollen, a woman heading to California for the first time, newly pregnant and worried about whether Gary, a biologist who studies whales, will propose. When the crash approaches, passengers turn to each other, seeking comfort in each other’s presence during their last minutes alive.

As Napolitano flips back and forth between Edward’s story post-crash and the complicated lives of the passengers on Flight 2977, she gradually shows how intertwined they are, and how responsible we as humans are for each other’s welfare. Several years after the crash, Edward, still listless and plagued by insomnia, finds a cache of letters his Uncle John had collected and saved for him until he was older. These letters written by relatives of the crash victims implore him to represent their loved ones by adopting their professions or hobbies, ask him if he recognizes them in their pictures, and pour out their own pain and grief.

Able to sleep deeply for the first time since the crash, Edward finds redemption and satisfaction in learning about each passenger aboard Flight 2977. With his best friend Shay’s help, he goes through the letters and writes responses. With his uncle, he catalogues the victims and information about them. In this way he keeps the crash victims alive for himself and those who loved them. He ponders the mystery of their lives, and in the process, his own.

Two of the most poignant themes of Dear Edward are family and community. Edward’s community and family were his brother, Jordan, and his parents in their New York neighborhood. After the crash, he finds himself in New Jersey with his aunt and uncle, a new community and a new family. His aunt, uncle, Shay and her mother are important members, along with his therapist and school principal. When Edward finds the letters, he finds another community and family: the dead and those who loved them. The ex-wife of Crispin Cox becomes a mentor who sends him books. He keeps in touch with others and thinks about how he can help them. In growing up, he decides to keep his brother Jordan alive and honor him by adopting some of his brother’s attitudes and visiting a woman who was Jordan’s first girlfriend.

Dear Edward represents people aiding each other through tragedy, as Shay helps Edward acclimate to his new school. Edward helps those who write to him, along with supporting his aunt and uncle as they get over their multiple miscarriages. They are not his parents, but he understands how their love for each other and him has helped them understand and live with their own grief. In the process he figures out how to define himself as an adolescent growing into adulthood, one already adult through the impact of this tragedy but not always for the worse.

Ann Napolitano has written a beautiful novel that captures the pains and mystery of adolescence and the trauma of almost unbearable grief. As he grows up, Edward realizes that helping his friends and the crash victims is a gift he can give, and that he owes no one anything. He owes it to himself to figure out who he is now after years of sorrow and paralysis. As a young adult, his responsibility is to define himself and his values, which include spiritual and financial generosity towards those in his community, and offering love to those in all his families.

Dear Edward is not a depressing work, regardless of its subject matter. It is about vibrant lives cut short, the importance of making the most of one’s existence, and most importantly, Edward’s painful and beautiful life on earth.

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