Outside The Lines

Outside The Lines by Amy Hatvany
Washington Square Press/2012
  Reviewed By: Sheri de Grom

Outside The Lines, Amy Hatvany’s third novel, is a haunting slice of life. I’ve never read a more honest portrayal of mental illness.

I found myself reckoning with the characters and wishing I could manipulate them toward a better outcome. Ms Hatvany’s cast is dynamic, complex, and unpredictable.

Eden West is thirty years old and owns the most successful catering business in Seattle. Her father is mentally ill and probably homeless. Eden hasn’t seen him for two decades.

Outside The Lines is written from dual points of view, both past and present, of Eden and her father. The storyline is easy to follow. Each time line break is clearly identified. Ms Hatvany’s treatment of each POV allowed me, the reader, to crawl inside the hearts and minds of these characters and to feel and experience their frustrations, small victories, and painful losses.

We first meet Eden when she’s ten years old and she’s found her father, David, lying on the bathroom floor in a pool of blood. He’s slashed his wrists.

Eden’s mother has had enough of her husband’s mood swings and of having to support the family herself. She can’t take any more and files for divorce.

Eden’s father, David, has a painting studio in the backyard and that’s where he crashes when his wife tells him he has to leave and not come back. The studio is complete with minimal bathroom fixtures, a hot plate and a single mattress. It might have been a working studio for a successful artist, but David is haunted by his bipolar episodes of highs and lows. He also self medicates with alcohol.

. . .Pg51[David knew he needed to get out of bed. Five days had passed since he escaped the house to the sanctuary of his studio. Five days spent beneath the covers on the twin mattress he kept on the floor next to his easel. His eyes were gritty. His body ached from lack of movement and the cold. The space heater only ran sporadically, shutting down as soon as the elements burned too hot. Maybe there would be a fire. Maybe he could let the flames lick his skin and welcome black smoke into his lungs. Maybe that would put an end to his misery.]. . .

Eden becomes her father’s caregiver. He knows she is in pain, but he can’t help her. There isn’t room inside him for her pain, his own is too large.

Eden prepares her father soup and crackers and leaves it outside his studio door since he won’t let her in. He can’t and she’s heartbroken.

. . .Pg53[“Eden!” my mother snapped. “I know! I can’t make him feel better. It’s his choice to hole up like an animal. I can’t make him stop. Believe me, I’ve tried.” I knew this was true. I knew my mother had taken him to countless doctors. They’d also been to five different therapists in the last two years, trying to find one whom my father might respect enough to take their advice.]. . .

Three months later, Eden runs away with her father but realizes a short distance from home that she can’t take care of both of them. She’s only ten and he’s driving intoxicated.

The highway patrol picks them up. Eden returns to her mother and her father is thrown in jail.

David wants to live with Eden and her mother. When he gets out of jail, he can’t handle the responsibilities. He begins to tell himself he’s not built for this kind of life. Maybe he’s not built for any kind of life. Maybe the world would be better off without him.

Eden wants more than anything for her father to be normal. To wear a suit and tie and go to a job like all the other dads she knows. He could even watch football on weekends and drink a beer or maybe mow the lawn so her mother wouldn’t have to. Maybe he could fix the car so her mother didn’t have to work extra hours to pay the mechanic.

He argues with himself about taking his meds. Which is worse—life on the meds or life off of them? He concludes its life he can’t stand. The simple act of breathing has become too much of an effort.

The divorce is final and David is released from a locked ward after six months. He can’t go home. He doesn’t have one. He has fifty dollars and thirty days worth of meds. He has the letters he’s written to Eden marked, “Return to sender.” She didn’t want to see him and he understood.

David doesn’t have to pretend to be anyone other than who he is to live on the street. Sometimes he talks to people and other times he doesn’t.

The years pass and Eden’s mother tells her that her father has made no effort to contact her.

Eden’s professional life becomes more and more successful. Her mother remarries but Eden wants nothing to do with her step-father. Her dog, Jasper, becomes her best friend and he seems to be the only male relationship she can manage.

With Eden’s maturity, she’s compelled to make one last effort to find her father. Eden searches hospital morgues, prisons, homeless shelters, and anywhere else she can think of for her missing father. She leaves copies of the last picture she has of him and asks them to call her day or night should they think they might have spotted him, even if it’s only a remote possibility.

Eden’s mother is adamant that Eden stop the search. She tells her, “He didn’t want you then and he doesn’t want you now.”

Interwoven into the story of Eden and her father’s tragic relationship is the building of Eden and Jack’s adult relationship that turns romantic.

Jack owns a shelter for homeless men. Eden visits looking for her father. Jack isn’t just any shelter director: he owns the shelter, runs it by a tight set of rules, genuinely cares for the men that frequent it for one hot meal a day, and he’s also a family renegade of his own.

Jack is a man willing to stand up to Eden in her search for her father and asks her what she has to offer in terms of help to the shelter if he allows her to look around as men arrive to have their evening meal.

She gives in and tells him she’s a chef and he promptly hands her a two-hundred pound sack of potatoes. Jack’s a firm believer in finding information through helping people and the hungry men will enjoy the potatoes for dinner. Eden isn’t sure she appreciates Jack’s logic but decides to give it a try.

After peeling the potatoes, Jack dismisses Eden for the day and she wonders if she’s just been played. He hasn’t said come back and we’ll work together or anything.

Finally, Jack leaves her a message to arrive at ‘Hope House’ on Tuesday and to be prepared to cook dinner for two-hundred hungry men. She has no idea of what the menu might consist.

. . .Pg81[I did my best to swallow any apprehension I felt as I walked through the front doors and back to the office I’d been in Friday night. There were a few men in the hallway standing in groups of two or three. A couple of them made eye contact and nodded in acknowledgment as I moved past, but most, they ignored me. I searched their faces out of habit—none of them were my father.]

Eden worked fast for two hours, in a kitchen she didn’t know and with equipment older than her mother. The primary ingredients seemed to be potatoes, onions, processed cheese, and the kind of canned ham that had water injected into it for preservation.

She wanted to add fresh vegetables to the menu and Jack laughed. He told her, the men are lucky to get two hot meals a week and they aren’t interested in vegetables. They want to fill up on whatever we can find for meat and potatoes. Maybe we can work vegetables in later.

At the last minute, Eden finds several boxes of brownie mix high on a shelf in a back pantry and mixes them up and popped the brownies in the oven. Jack warns the mix had been donated a couple years ago.

In her stubborn way, she replies, “So, what do these men have to lose? Even if it’s bad, it’ll be a treat.”

The meal is a hit with the homeless men and Eden can’t believe she’d actually fed two-hundred men without her chef’s hat while cooking and creating.

Unfortunately her father didn’t come through the line to be fed and none of the men are talking. Eden listened in on their conversations.

. . .Pg102[After my first successful dinner was served at Hope House, I showed up the following two Tuesdays with plenty of time to make both the meal and a dessert. The catering schedule at work had been too hectic for me to do any other type of searching for my father, so I found myself looking forward to my new volunteer commitment, though it wasn’t only because it gave me the opportunity to keep an eye out for him. I had gone home that first night filled with a kind of satisfaction I hadn’t experienced before—a little astounded by the level of gratitude the Hope House clients showed for a simple bowl of warm, hearty food.]

‘Hope House’ becomes more than just a place for Eden to look for her father. She’s made genuine friends while learning the stories of people that both volunteer there and some of the men that come in for hot meals. Recognizing the vast amount of food her catering business wastes, it’s now wrapped and saved for use in the kitchens of ‘Hope House.’

Her relationship with Jack becomes closer and, when Eden learns her father lives in a rooming house not far away, Jack volunteers to go with her—if she wants.

Jack has a different view than Eden on people who have disappeared or chosen another lifestyle. . . .Pg113[“How would you feel if someone came to you with this attitude of, ‘Here, let me help you.’ The inherent message being that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. That you’re somehow ‘less than’ because you live differently that they do. Most of my clients don’t want help. They want to be treated like members of the human race. They want camaraderie and friendship and connection. Like we all do.”]

Eden and Jack find the boarding house but Eden’s father is no longer living there. They do find the manager of the building and she gives them three boxes of her father’s items. Jack and Eden return to Eden’s apartment.

Eden and Jack begin going through one of the boxes and find several of her father’s paintings. Eden breaks down when they come across a painting that Eden calls, ‘The Garden of Eden.’ It brings back a childhood memory of when she and her father planted a flower garden in front of their house and it looked just like his painting. They had called the garden, ‘The Garden of Eden.’

Anger overtakes Eden as she flips through a succession of envelopes, stamped “return to sender”. Her father sent the letters to Eden while she was a child. Her mother returned them unopened, all the while telling Eden her father didn’t care enough to stay in touch with her.

. . .Pg223[She lied to me. She told me he never wrote. That he never called. I asked her over and over again if he wanted to see me and she told me no. I cried night after night and she just let me suffer.]

The months roll by and Eden is estranged from her mother, more than ever. Nothing her mother says or does makes up for the fact that the letters from her father were returned to sender.

Jack stands by Eden and continues to help her with her search as she attempts to keep her catering business on schedule. Fortunately, she also receives a great deal of help from her loyal staff.

Eden reaches a point where she’s ready to give up on finding her father.

. . .Pg300 She tells Jack. [“I’ve been thinking a lot about how I need to start focusing more on what I have in my life instead of what I don’t. And I have a lot.”]

But Eden’s life isn’t complete until she finds out what’s happened to her father.

Locating her father consumes Eden’s life and she allowed some of her best relationships to take a backseat to everything else. How will she cope if her father doesn’t want to be found—or, if found, doesn’t want to be a part of mainstream society?

Mental health statistics state that twenty percent of all Americans have a diagnosable mental illness. Another statistic that always surprises me is that one in four homes in the US has someone living there with a mental illness severe enough to interfere with family dynamics. I often wonder what these numbers mean for the future of our country as a whole. The US is more heavily medicated with psychological drugs than any other nation in the world.

Outside The Lines by Amy Hatvany is a true insight into our mental health system and how it fails so many. It’s an honest and insightful portrayal of mental health and its impact on families in present day America.

I highly recommend Outside The Lines without reservation for book clubs and individuals alike.

About Sheri de Grom

Retired Fed/JAG, 5 yrs. on Capitol Hill. Former book buyer for B and N. Concerned citizen of military drawdown. Currently involved in mental healthcare reform, health care strategist and actively pursuing legislative change wherein dual retirees are exempt from enrolling in Medicare at their own discretion without losing tertiary healthcare benefits. Monitor and comment on Federal Register proposed legislation involving Mental Health, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Medicare and rural libraries. Licensed OSHA Inspector to include Super Fund sites. Full time caregive to Vietnam era veteran. Conceptualized, investigated possible alternatives, authored, lobbied for, and successfully implemented Title X, Section 1095 (known as the Third Party Collection Program of Federal Insurance).
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8 Responses to Outside The Lines

  1. Lynn Garrett says:

    One in four households–maybe that’s why people say you never really know someone until you live with them. We’re all pretty good at putting on the public face. And really, home is where you’re supposed to be able to let down and be loved for who you are. But I think this story, and true mental illness, is a different topic altogether. Very well done review.

  2. Sheri, this sounds like a compelling read … I would love to see how Amy concludes this search to find her father. The epidemic of mental illness has been pushed to the limits since funding for facilities were slashed, leaving many who needed residential care and monitoring alone on the streets.

    It’s a subject too close to my heart, my family and one that haunts me to this day. I thank you for yet another great review and book selection 🙂

    • Hi Florence – Thanks for stopping in. Amy writes close to ‘the bone’ on this one. It’s beautifully written and she’s so on target in writing the father/daughter. The father self-medicates with alcohol making it especially difficult for him to make it into mainstream society. There’s also an excellent ‘look’ in the characterization of the daughter, Eden and how her father/daughter relationship influenced her adult relationships. This is a great read but not a light one.
      I totally agree with you about the lack of funding for those that need assistance with medication/housing/etc. and also want it. One of my passions is advocating in the legislative arena for mental health legislation.

  3. This story sounds so heartbreaking and reading your review almost makes me want to cry, it’s so sad. Mental illness in the U.S. is rampant and people are not taken care of properly. They’re let out onto the streets without money or someone to administer their meds because the state has no funding. It’s a horrific cycle of homelessness, incarceration, and death.
    Thank you for telling us about this book, Sheri.

    • Patti – One of the things we know about women’s fiction is that not all novels have a happy ever after — but they do have a great growth arch — and that’s what Amy Hatavany offered up in Outside The Lines. There’s laughter and tears, joy and discontentment. Not everyone that’s mentally ill ends up on the streets. They live full productive lives. Outside The Lines is the story of one family wherein the ill individual elected to self-medicate. The novel presents great drama.

  4. booklaurie says:

    That quote of Jack’s on page 113 is the best thing I’ve ever read in a book review — even if I never get the book, you did a beautiful job of presenting its crown jewel.

    And, totally off topic, I just started the Sharla Lovelace book last night and it’s every bit as good as promised. Thanks!

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