"This is not going to be easy, whatever happens between us. But I let myself love him anyway. I let myself love him with all my heart. I give myself that. I tell myself I deserve it."
What struck me most when reading Blake Nelson's latest novel, Recovery Road, was the sense of truthfulness about it. There is an observant quality to this book which, considering the subject matter, is almost ruthless. I don't mean that in a sensationalistic way, because this book is anything but sensationalistic. Instead, it digs deep and grapples with the grinding struggle of recovery, the boredom and disappointment and sense of loss and ineptness that can accompany it, and the never-ending, daily choices that either support or wreck the recovery process. It's incredibly convincing.
The story opens with teenage Maddy in a halfway house for recovering addicts. She's one of the few young people there--most of her roommates are middle-aged women with lives that are alien to her. It's not entirely clear what her primary addiction is--she's definitely an alcoholic but seems to also have more than a passing acquaintance with various drugs. She's a hard partier and, according to the clinic psychiatrist, has anger issues. This opinion seems to be supported by her high school nickname, "Mad Dog Maddie", although Maddie herself dismisses it.
"She tosses her notebook on her desk. 'You know there's a saying. "If you meet three assholes in a day, you're the asshole." Do you think that could be true?'
'That I'm the asshole? No! Are you kidding me?'
She stares at me.
'No way,' I say. 'I am never the asshole.'"
Maddie's stay in the clinic is boring and uncomfortable. She makes two friends, one named Trish, who has a lot in common with Maddie but carries the additional burden of having paralyzed her best friend in a drunk driving accident. The other is Stuart, who is floundering with his life but to whom Maddie feels a strong connection. He's cute and charismatic, and he and Maddie make out a few times before Maddie's psychiatrist orders them apart (romantic relationships are against the rules in rehab). They vow to continue their relationship once they are both released, and it is the thought of this that keeps Maddie hopeful about the future.
As the story progresses, we begin to understand a few things. Maddie is very smart. Stuart, maybe not so much. Maddie has a supportive family--not perfect, but supportive. Stuart is estranged from his Mom and eventually becomes estranged from his Dad as well. Maddie has a goal--to get into a good university. Stuart's goals are not so clear.
Nelson excels at portraying the many small decisions Maddie must make to sustain her new life, and the almost robotic quality she sometimes takes on while making them. She must disengage from all of her old school friends, even if it means she hides in the library during lunch. When Stuart invites her to come live with him and his father, she turns him down, even though she's afraid of the growing distance between them. She is relentlessly driven to achieve high grades, although this has never been her priority before. She even goes to summer school. She is astute enough to realize that she needs a new focus if she is going to break her old party-girl habits, and she just pushes herself through, no matter what the cost. Stuart, meanwhile, drifts in and out of jobs, drifts over to a new girlfriend, and finally drifts back into addiction. He is, in the end, a counterpoint to Maddie's story of cautious but determined redemption.