As the Twin Towers collapse, Gigi Stanislawski flees her office building and escapes lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the crying, ash-covered and shoeless passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, finds someone she recognises – Harry Harrison, a British man and a regular at the her favourite coffee shop. Gigi brings Harry to her parents’ house where they watch the television replay the planes crashing for hours, and she waits for the phone call that will never come; the call from Frankie, her younger brother.
Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother consumed with bills and unfulfilled ambitions, meets Harry, again by chance, and they fall deeply, headlong in love. But their move to London highlights the differences in their class and culture, which was, more or less, something to laugh about until the traumatic birth of their baby leave her feeling raw and alone.
As Gigi grieves for her brother and rages at the unspoken pain of motherhood, she realises she must somehow find a way back – not to the woman she was but to the woman she wants to be.
An original and tense read as Gigi leaves her house, she literally runs away, kicking her husbands shoes across the street and leaving him bewildered with their children, checking into a cheap hotel with a pizza and a couple of bottles of wine, the day is spent with Gigi as she reflects on everything that has brought her to this point.
Starting with that day, September 11th 2001, Gigi flees Manhattan, heading home to safety on Staten Island. Harry is on the ferry, also fleeing and recognising him, both regulars at a cafe close to work, among the dust and debris of 9/11 Harry, with nowhere to go accompanies her home and plays a brief but crucial role in supporting Gigi and her family in their immediate grief as they learn of the death of Gigi’s brother, inside one of the towers as it fell.
The grief never leaves Gigi and Harry remains sensitve to this, however when she gives birth to their son, a traumatic delivery leaves her traumatised and unable to recover. Already mother to adopted Jonny, Gigi feels she should cope and struggles to open up to anyone about this. Listless, lonely and depressed, Gigi struggles to bond with her baby or maintain her house leaving her feeling guilty, until things reach a head, on that day when she simply runs away.
A stark look a the impact of childbirth and motherhood. I suspect many women will relate to aspects of this book. That moment when women undertake an entire, largely undervalued role of being a mother. The loss of identity often acquired from a career, combined with reduced confidence and success in the new role; the pressure women place on each other and the measures of success – baby sleeping, baby not crying, successful breastfeeding and return to pre pregnancy appearance are all deftly evidenced here in this highly relatable writing. The different impact on men and women are explored as Gigi’s resentment boils over with Harry trying also to articulate his feeling.
The writing took a bit of getting used to, the book started quick and ‘on the move’ so the characters emerged through the writing as the story progressed. I liked the strength of female freindship as Gigi’s friends became aware of her plight, the relationship between Harry and Gigi was strong but it was easy and indeed familiar to see how they had drifted apart and communicated less, leaving them both stranded, struggling and alone at a time when the outside world requires the promotion of the positive and glowing nature of new parenthood.
Each chapter began with Gigi watching Amercian Housewives in her cheap hotel room, before reflecting on aspects of her life; the loss of her brother and the devastating impact of this on her parents, progressing to her relationship with Harry and subsequent move to to London. Told entirely in the first person voice of Gigi, she was raw in her honesty, although I felt concerned for her vulnerablity and her inablility to articulate how she was feeling and get help. There were moments of recognition with other mothers, brief glimpses of the private struggles but the need to present a happy and coping front was too strong for these women to share and offer genuine support to each other.
Reading this reminded me of when I first became a parent, it was tough and although my experiences were nothing like Gigi’s I remember reflecting after how important it is for women to acknowledge how difficult this time is. A friend of mine only shared after that she had cried daily for the first year of her son’s life, we had no idea but equally in our group I doubt she was the only one.
It was no surprise to read that while this is a work of fiction, the author drew upon her own experiences of motherhood, feeling isolated in a new country.
An important and powerful read that for me took a little while to get into but once I did became hard to put down. Definitely one I would recommend for those who enjoy honest, contemporary fiction exploring the experiences of women with themes of love, loss, parenthood and mental health.
Thank you to Jahan at Two Roads Books for the proof copy of the book and for inviting me to be involved in the instagram tour.
Check out what others are saying about this book using the Instagram handles below.
About the Author
Ilona Bannister is a New Yorker married to an Englishman and raising two young sons in South London.
A dual qualified US attorney and UK solicitor, Ilona practiced UK Immigration law and her experiences as a lawyer working closely with families in difficult situations have made her a keen observer of people and the struggles of outsiders.
When I Ran Away, was developed on Faber Academy’s Work in Progress course.