Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland

“…the ever present feeling of floundering, of failing, of being torn between two things that were so important to me, each of which demanded more time than I could I give.”

On the surface, Need to Know is a CIA spy thriller, but at it’s heart, it’s a story about trying to be “supermom,” a modern American working mother who’s family and way of life feels like it’s always on the edge, who’s career keeps her from her kids, but who can’t afford to give up her career, and the guilt she lives with. Everything in the plot, including whether or not Vivian can trust her husband as an equal partner, intensifies this basic, psychological reality, which is the brilliant part. I couldn’t put it down, and Vivian’s dilemmas and need to protect her family absolutely grabbed me and had me on the edge of my seat, twisted in knots. It’s beautifully written as well, dancing lightly between past and present, as Vivian relives the key moments of her marriage, seeing everything in her new double-vision: the anatomy of a marriage.

I will say the end of the book didn’t work for me, but reviewers have different opinions, and overall, the book is just genius.

Vivian’s decisions are so much harder because of her social and economic situation, which comes down to two working parents, four small children, and not enough social or financial cushion. This part of it reminded me of reading Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn. I also recently heard Sen. Elizabeth Warren chronicle her life story, with the constant struggle to find childcare and afford the basics, being a working mother, or in school, and also a parent. She credits her Aunt Bea who came to her rescue to care for the children so that Warren could work, but notes that most people aren’t so lucky, after which she went on to outline her proposal for Universal Childcare, which, I think, has the potential to change millions of people’s lives for the better. Imagine not having to constantly worry about that! Another character in Cleveland’s novel finds himself trapped because of access to healthcare, another source of constant worry for millions that could be addressed by public policy, and I suddenly thought, my god, what if someday we could look back on this period and see it as such a dark time in which the vast majority of people struggled, possibly needlessly, just to raise their families, because it doesn’t have to be like this. We don’t have to have so many people living on the edge, one job loss, one missed paycheck, one health emergency away from everything collapsing.