If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Secrets and assumptions can destroy your family
Hannah Beckerman’s novel, If Only I Could Tell You, investigates the family dynamics between a mother and her two estranged adult daughters. What has happened in this family that would cause one sister to hate another? How does a mother bring them together after thirty years of separation? And how can a dying woman beat the clock and direct a reconciliation that’s been impossible for decades?
If Only I Could Tell You is an illustration of how families are torn apart by guilt, secrets, anger, and wrong assumptions. It also shows how easily families can splinter and how hard it is to put them together again. (Sounds a bit Humpty-Dumpty-esque, doesn’t it?)
Each chapter is narrated by one of the three main characters, an approach which highlights the differing perceptions of past events:
Audrey: The mother of Jess and Lily, has been diagnosed with cancer, and reluctantly moves in with her younger daughter, Jess, and her granddaughter, Mia.
Lily: Audrey’s oldest daughter, who is a powerful, affluent marketer who appears — from the outside at least — to have a perfect life. Lily has a sixteen-year-old daughter named Phoebe.
Jess: Audrey’s younger daughter is a single mom working as a producer and struggles to make ends meet. She became pregnant with Mia and had to forego college.
Jess and Lily live just a few miles from each other, but they NEVER speak, regardless of how hard Audrey has tried to reunite them. Jess’s anger and vitriol spew forth every time her sister is even mentioned, and she has forbidden all contact between them, including keeping their two daughters- born three months apart —from ever seeing each other.
I have two daughters, and I was reminded of all the mistakes I’ve made with them. The times I said the wrong things. The things I could have done differently. The way one action affects the future. (Granted, I haven’t done anything drastic as what’s portrayed in the book, but still, I am a far-from-perfect mom in the eyes of my girls.) Mother-daughter relationships are a common theme in literature, and they are a prominent part of If Only I Could Tell You.
If I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, what would be the most important thing for me to accomplish before I died? Is there one great wrong that needs to be righted? One big dream on the bucket-list? One looming regret to erase?
My favorite quote from the book:
“…she was certain now that a person’s story didn’t follow a straight narrative trajectory from birth to death. There were countless beginnings and endings, countless opportunities to start again. There were as many different beginnings to a life as someone was brave and kind enough to allow themselves.”
The book is easy to read and fast-paced, influenced by Hannah Beckerman’s career as a journalist and editor. Direct, succinct, and without extraneous detail, Beckerman’s writing propels your forward, turning pages as fast as you can read them.
The Second Novel Syndrome
Even more interesting than the actual novel, — at least for from a writing perspective — is Hannah Beckerman’s discussion of how difficult it is to write a second novel.
If Only I Could Tell You is not Beckerman’s first foray into publishing. She released her first book in 2014, titled The Dead Wife’s Handbook. In an interview in Irish Times, she acknowledges that
“my debut novel was not a wild success and there was no legion of readers and critics eagerly awaiting the next.”
While there were parts of her first book she was proud of, Beckerman recognized that she could do better. So she began work on what she hoped would be her second novel. After she completed that draft, she didn’t like it. Then she wrote a different book. It didn’t work for her either. So she tried again and went back to her first manuscript and tried rewriting it. Still “no go.” With the determination of a sledge hammer, she kept going, eventually creating If Only I Could Tell You, six years after her first book. Even then she fought self-doubt:
“Every time I consigned another book to the virtual bottom drawer, I was overcome by feelings of self-doubt.”
Beckerman notes that when you write your first book, you don’t have critics and editors looking over your shoulder. When you write your second one you do and that changes your writing process:
“I became more self-critical, more anxious about what others would think. I became, in a way, schizophrenic: both writer and critic simultaneously.”
Luckily for us, she kept going, producing a final manuscript of If Only I Could Tell You that is receiving rave reviews. For writers, it pays to keep going.