15. Sarah Dunster, Mile 21 (Whitney finalist, General)
While the cover of this novel makes it appear to be a romance, I don't think that's really what it is. I think it's much more an exploration of the main character's personal recovery from devastating grief. At 21, Abish Cavendish Miller is a widow of one year and she's not coping well. She's reached the point in her grief where everyone expects her to move on, but she's not there yet. She's prickly at work, avoids her family, and is generally content to avoid everyone and everything (mostly by running--literally--anytime she feels emotionally threatened). But when her mother kicks her out of her cushy job managing some apartments (or not managing, as Abish seems to be doing) and her boss issues her an ultimatum, Abish finds herself in unexpectedly new (and unwelcome) environs: living with an apartment of girls in an LDS singles ward. All she wants to do is keep her head down, go to school, and get through this.
Gradually, however, Abish finds herself enmeshed in the lives of those around her: the roommates that she consistently underestimates, the good-looking young single father of two with his own concealed pain, even the parents she can't seem to find words to talk to. And she runs. The running seems to be a metaphor for this book of Abish's ability to push through difficult things (she plans to run the Ogden marathon despite the fact that she's never been able to make it past mile 16)--and the running affords her both an escape from her life and a place to make sense of it.
I really loved this book. Though I am not a runner nor a widower, I resonated with Abish's struggles to come to terms with her life, particularly within LDS theology, which holds that her marriage to her husband is eternal. How does one come back from that? If she's married to him (and loves him) for time and eternity, what is she supposed to do with the rest of her time on earth? How does she move on from him--and does she even want to? I loved that Dunster managed to ask serious questions without resorting to trite or pat answers--and that she created a realistic look at life inside the bubble of a singles ward (including the good and sometimes terrible things that people do to each other under the banner of their faith). And I'll admit--I cried. Quite a bit, actually, and I'm not one to cry easily when I read. The crying wasn't so much because the novel was depressing (far from it, actually), but because I found myself so moved by Abish and her growth.