Pete Fromm’s newest novel attempts to take on the raging river that is loved ones dealing
with a degenerative disease while trying to live a normal life and, for the most part, he
If Not For This begins with the meeting and eventual marriage of Maddy and Dalton—Dalt—two river guides who meet in the Pacific Northwest. Soon after marrying, they are forced to leave Wyoming where they work because they simply cannot afford it. They decide to move to Ashland, Oregon, where they establish their own river business, Halfmoon Whitewater. Things look great until Maddy begins to think she has mono. It
isn’t mono, though, it is the degenerative disease Multiple Sclerosis, which she learns about around the time she learns that she is pregnant with their first child, Attila—named after the Mongol conqueror because at the time they find out, Dalt is in Mongolia leading a fishing trip.
Maddy’s MS continues to worsen, her and Dalt eventually have a second child, a girl named Izzy, and Dalt first begins a job as a construction worker and then starts his own company, Halfmoon Construction. The kids age, Maddy’s MS continues to cripple her, and eventually—after Izzy has been married off and Attila is doing his own thing—Maddy and Dalt reach the end, retirement. They discuss taking an exotic trip and
one day while Dalt is gone, Maddy decides to try and eat a sandwich on her own, causing her to choke and pass away.
There are some great things about this book, just as there are some not so great things. The love that Maddy and Dalt show to and for each other, from the first time they meet to the very last day they are together, is beautiful. Fromm manages to capture the heartbreak that comes with watching a loved one slowly die while unable to save them well. It is real and raw. It is this rawness that helps keep this novel from falling too easily into the overly saccharine world of Lifetime movies.
Another particularly gruesome moment—and one that does more to characterize the physical and mental stress that Maddy suffers from—is when she decides to try to straighten out her curled hand one more time.
It can’t work, but I pull, and pull, forcing this one part of me to be normal
again. Even just for a second…I don’t let up until I hear the first bone
snap…My finger, pointer, sticks out at a ninety to the back of my hand,
but still curls towards the others, helpless in its draw back down toward
This moment crystallizes everything Maddy has and will continue to suffer through.
The two biggest issues readers may find with the novel—and both of these stem from generally the same place—are inconsistent pacing and a lack of defined voice for Maddy. Every major life event imaginable is seen in some way in the novel and where Fromm could’ve expounded on the pain or joy of carrying a child while sick, he skips it. Twice. Instead, we are given other moments that, aside from Maddy’s MS, are the kind more likely to be found in a Nicholas Sparks book. This comes off more as the author’s inability to write clear, effective prose from the point of view of a woman than it does a stylistic choice. With many of the major moments, Fromm has Maddy back into them, saying whatever happened as if we already knew, before explaining the situation. This setup and execution is detrimental more often than not.
The second issue concerns Maddy’s voice and the overall lack of maturation we see over the course of her life. Maddy as a character is that she does not seem to ever really grow up. As a newlywed, she reacts to possible pregnancy as a teen might: “It first, he convinced himself the mono was pregnancy. EPT. Pee on a stick, But, um, no, I wasn’t pregnant and, somehow, that’s not exactly how I envision finding out,sitting on the throne trying not to pee on my fingers.” Or take when she explains Dalt’s trip around the world: “Mongolia. No lie. Before he left, I wasn’t even sure it was a real country, or just some Bugs Bunny punch line.” As she ages, she maintains this somewhat brazen, immature outlook and frame of mind: “Shit. I can’t believe I walked into that one. My brain used to really work. I swear it.” As a conversational style, Fromm does a fine job, but that fact that she never really grows up despite MS and having two children again feels like Fromm’s inability to write effectively from the female perspective.
For those looking for a story that borders on the heartbreaking—or one for those actively engaged in the outdoors—If Not For This is the book. It is an easy enough read to take to the beach or to get through on a rainy day or two and it may just break your heart a little.
Guest Reviewer: Sam Slaughter is the author of When You Cross That Line and the forthcoming God in Neon (Lucky Bastard Press) and Dogs (Double Life Press). He serves as the Book Review Editor for Atticus Review and is the Spirits writer for The Manual. He can be found online at www.samslaughterthewriter.com and on Twitter @slaughterwrites.