11 March 2013

Book Review: The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley

When I first heard about this novel several months ago when I was deciding which new winter '13 fiction titles my store should carry, I thought the promise sounded interesting: Elle falls off a ladder and hits her head, causing severe brain trauma, so her devastated husband, Matt, has to make the call to take her off life support.  But wait! Blood work shows that Elle is, in fact, pregnant, so Matt decides to keep Elle on life support until the baby can be born. But wait, part deux! Elle's mother-in-law produces a piece of paper saying dating from two decades ago that says she is Elle's health care proxy, and that she is going to take Elle off life support (acto her advanced health directive), because Elle's wishes should outweigh everything else. Mother is thus pitted against son in this modern medical feud.

Sounds intriguing, no?

Well, if you're a savvier reader than I am, then you will have already anticipated the immediate direction the book takes once the conflict between Matt and his mother arises. I, however, was entirely too naive to anticipate the political melee that broke out, with the militant pro-lifers backing Matt's position and vilifying his mother.  Matt's attorney agrees to take the case because he is eager to set precedent in this arena, heavily hinting that he would love to be one of those people credited with overturning Roe v. Wade.

I almost stopped reading at that point, as I wasn't at all interested in spending the next several hours of my free time immersed in the vitriol that marks this issue, and I certainly didn't want to immerse myself among characters who want to defeat one of the single biggest victories in the women's movement.  No, indeed! Then I had second thoughts; I didn't really know how the book would end, so I decided to stick with it. I had a good idea that the book wouldn't be for me, but I also thought that it was a book I could probably sell and therefore finishing the book would not equate to time wasted.

My biggest issue with the story, and one that I thought was a pretty gaping hole in the plot, was Matt's general disinterest in the unborn child.  He never really gives any indication that he wants to keep Elle alive so that he can be a father to that child, or that so he can still have a tie to Elle after she dies.  He mostly wants to keep Elle on life support because she was desperate to have a child--desperate to the point of being willing to risk her health in order to carry one to term after several miscarriages. Matt is a neurology surgeon and he never indicates that he is the type of person who would be willing to put his life on hold in order to raise a child by himself.  What's more, the hospital didn't realize Elle was pregnant when she arrived via ambulance, so she was pumped full of meds, then put on general anesthesia in a surgical last-ditch attempt to save her.  Goodness only knows how the trauma and the drugs would impact the fetus.

So yeah, I never quite bought into the fact that Matt wanted to be a parent to this baby that, in all likelihood, would be born with all kinds of health issues, if it even lived to term at all.  And since he was perfectly prepared to take Elle off life support before discovering her pregnancy, it was a pretty big sticking point in my being able to read the book at face value.

Looking beyond Matt, though, there were some real complications on both sides of the story, and everybody who knew Elle wants to have their say.  Each family member draws lines: Elle's dad takes Matt's side, Elle's brother sides with Matt's mom. Even Elle's old lover from college shows up with an advance directive that is several years old, from when he and Elle were working for NASA in Texas: this is key, because Texas state law overrides a woman's right to be removed from life support if she is pregnant. It's a big brouhaha all over.

This definitely wasn't the book for me, but I have a pretty good idea the kinds of readers who would: those who love Jodi Picoult, Kristin Hannah, Nicholas Sparks and other issue-driven romances. I will say that I appreciated the author's choice to tell the book from a single point of view (Matt's, via a first person narrative) rather than resort to Picoult's style of using different narrators (and, ugh, different typefaces for each one). I've not read a ton of books by Picoult, Hannah, or Sparks, so this may be grossly generalizing, but I also felt that Sibley's book was slightly more nuanced than those works.  I know several family members, friends, and/or customers who will like this book, I feel.

NB: William Morrow published this book as a paperback original in February of this year. I read an ARE provided to me at my request from my sales rep.


  1. Eek. This sounds like it could maybe be good if it wasn't so melodramatic? Because melodrama shines through your review and I also thought of Picoult, who I've never read and therefore did not know about the different typefaces but I just saw the movie of My Sister's Keeper and they kept the multiple narrators and it was terrible. I sort of lied, I did buy one of her books once but I returned it after about 2 pages because I hated the writing, so that doesn't count. Anyway, this sounds a little too drama-y for my taste but the premise is interesting. Also, I feel like it's pretty rare for people to have advanced directives, never mind TWO, and also, why would her mother-in-law be her health proxy?! ME NO UNDERSTAND.

    1. Oh, I didn't explain about the mother-in-law thing. When Elle was a teenager, her mother had cancer but her father kept her mom alive on life support and Elle was terrified of dying in a similar way. Elle chose Matt's mom to be her health care proxy when she was a teenager because (1) Matt's mom was her neighbor, and (2) Matt's mom was a pediatric nurse and thus had lots of medical experience.

      You're right: melodramatic is a good word for this novel.

    2. Oh Lawdy, Emily, sounds like a mixed up mess - Jennifer is right, how many people have multiple advance directives? Your explanation just illuminates even more how contrived this melodrama is. If I want to feel that level of disgust in my reading, I'll tune in to what's happening in the war against women where various states are currently fighting to shut down womens' clinics and deny them their reproductive rights. Okay, I'm done. :)


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