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"If I were a different sort of person," notes Anna Simon, the central character of AWAKE, "this would be the story of my son and the sanctuary we found for him. It would be the story of a family coming together around a child's illness, finding a community, one another, maybe even God." However, as Anna reminds readers repeatedly throughout this novel, she is not that sort of person. Instead, what starts out as a novel about a family centered on a sick child develops into Anna's own story of personal reflection and awakening.

Anna and her husband Ian have two sons: the eldest, Adam, is a typical moody preteen, obsessed with soccer and computers, and a little bit resentful of his younger brother, Max. Max, a shy nine-year-old who still carries a stuffed owl everywhere, is chronically ill with xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), an exceedingly rare skin disease. People with XP are completely intolerant of sunlight --- even the light on a cloudy day can permanently damage their skin. They suffer incredibly high rates of skin cancer and blindness, and rarely live to adulthood.

Because of his illness, Max and Anna seem to live in their own world. Anna homeschools Max after Ian and Adam have gone to bed. They bake cookies in the wee hours, and Max runs around in the moonlight for recess time. Anna adores Max but she fears for his --- and her own --- isolation. Anna has had to give up so much for Max, even her old identity as an artist. When Anna learns of a special summer camp --- Camp Luna --- for XP kids and their families, she is eager to help Max get to know other children with the same condition.

Over midnight swims and starlit canoe rides, Anna discovers her own awakening of sorts, as she becomes undeniably attracted to Hal, the charismatic camp director. Hal seems to know Anna for herself, her identity outside that of wife and mother. Anna responds warmly to Hal's recognition of her artistic talents and her beauty, even as her time at camp causes her to remember her younger, unattached self and to grow apart from the family that brought her there in the first place.

Elizabeth Graver does a masterful job of letting her readers inside Anna's deepest, most personal thoughts. Because the narrative is so rigorously focused on Anna's inner world, it is sometimes repetitive, as Anna struggles to come to terms with her own preoccupations. It is also sometimes painful to read, as when Anna raises questions about her own fitness as a mother and about her conflicted feelings over giving birth to a seriously ill child. Sometimes, being inside Anna's head makes for a claustrophic reading experience --- the reader comes away from this novel knowing Anna deeply but longing for a little more understanding of her husband and her children. Anna's painter's eye, though, lends a beauty to all she sees, and the images of Camp Luna, which comes alive only at night, are luminous and lovely.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2011

by Elizabeth Graver

  • Publication Date: April 7, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 0805065393
  • ISBN-13: 9780805065398