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John Thorndike
The World Against Her Skin

Virginia and Joe Thorndike have been married for twenty-two years, and she wants a new life. She’s in love with Rich Villamano, a surgeon thirteen years her junior, but after flying to Miami to start living with him, he tells her he has changed his mind and they must go their own ways. In an instant their four-year affair is over. She takes off in his car, headed north with no luggage, no hope, no destination. She buys a bottle of gin and drinks it straight. Afraid that she’ll kill herself or someone else on the road, she abandons the car in Georgia, flies to New York and takes an airport hotel room. She has no home and nowhere to go.

Her older son Jamie, a closeted gay student at Dartmouth, has walked off into a White Mountain snowstorm. It’s Ginny who discovers that after faking his suicide, he has holed up in a cabin owned by Miles, the gay art teacher at his former boarding school. The deceptive suicide, suggested by Miles, has helped save his life.

Once reunited, mother and son wind up in a borrowed house in Sag Harbor on Long Island. Ginny is an anesthesiologist but in no shape to practice. Her younger son Rob joins her for the summer, as Jamie and his older lover move to Provincetown. Rob, at sixteen, must deal with a shattered and sometimes drunken mother.

She sobers up and falls apart, many times. She works for several clinics, she joins the Peace Corps and spends two years as a doctor in Chile. But back in the States, it’s discovered that she has been filling her own sedative prescriptions, and her clinic fires her. To hide this from her sons, she signs up for a yoga trip to India. On her flight home, after too many pills, she passes out and wakes up in a New York hospital. Though sober when released, she soon starts drinking again, and takes more pills than ever. She wants only to be unconscious, and one cold November night she falls asleep for the last time.

In this assured and compelling novel, Thorndike (The Last of His Mind) gives voice to a passionate woman who stubbornly follows her heart. After twenty-two years of marriage, anesthesiologist Ginny Thorndike leaves her husband for a much younger man, only to be abandoned. Her devotion to her sons, Rob and Jamie, quells thoughts of suicide, and Jamie’s mysterious disappearance draws out her fierce determination: she will find him. Despite debilitating alcoholism and addictions, Ginny pursues adventure: Peace Corps work in Chile, visits to Jamie amid Key West’s gay culture, assisting a birth in Rob’s hippy commune, and more. Memories of family, lovers, and possible sexual abuse intertwine with her everyday life, providing a rousing portrait of a brave, imperfect woman.

Although the novel spans the 1960s with flashbacks to previous decades, Thorndike’s present-tense storytelling imbues the material with immediacy, while its sense of history, such as Ginny’s brief affair with legendary sculptor Isamu Noguchi, entices readers to see the world freshly. Thorndike alternates between the perspectives of Ginny and Rob, revealing the love Ginny yearns to show her children and the loyalty they give in return. Rob’s unusual life path immerses readers in a full range of emotions, from sensual thrill to abject loneliness. Striking language and poetic and historical detail bring vivid life to the emotional journey.

Given the convincing plot and fully fleshed out protagonist, it is no surprise that a real woman inspired the novel: Thorndike’s own mother, which accounts for the shared last name. But this is no memoir—Ginny’s free-spirited choices and dark struggles measure up to fiction’s great protagonists. Her self-awareness and wit garner affection and sympathy as readers hope she finds relief from the memories that haunt her. Fans of women’s fiction and family drama will savor Ginny’s search for happiness, and readers will miss Ginny and her children long after finishing this moving stunner.

Takeaway: A stunning drama that delves into one woman’s bid for romantic satisfaction, even at the price of desolation.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A-