Reviewed by Sara Hodon
One Moment, One Morning
by Sarah Rayner
St. Martin’s Griffin
Paperback: 416 pages, December 20, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1250000194
Life can change in a split second. This is one of those trite expressions that many of us have said, but rarely think about, until one day when the hard truth of this reality impacts our lives directly. When real life comes crashing down, it forces us to think about the heavy issues—life, death, love, self-identity, relationships with others, and just how many lives we touch.
The women in One Moment, One Morning, the debut from novelist Sarah Rayner, find themselves facing these heavy issues head-on in an unlikely place—a commuter train heading to London on an otherwise uneventful Monday morning. Lou, a youth counselor, is sitting across from Karen and Simon, a loving, upwardly-mobile looking couple who are speaking quietly to each other. It’s a typical commute on an ordinary day, until suddenly Simon falls to the floor.
A few cars away, Karen’s best friend, Anna, is unaware that her friends are on the same train, let alone that Simon has collapsed. When the train stops, she is as confused and, frankly, annoyed as her fellow passengers—she’s on her way to work, after all—but has no choice but to wait it out. Anna gets off the train and winds up sharing a cab with Lou. The two women begin chatting, and Lou tells her what she’s just seen. This is how Anna finds out why the train stopped. Later, her friend Karen calls from the hospital and explains that the man who collapsed wasn’t just any man—it was her husband.
The defining moment of the entire novel happens on page 5, yet the remainder of the book is about the three women and how they are all profoundly changed by that moment. Karen, a woman utterly defined by her role of wife and mother, must now learn to live her life as a widow with two young children. Anna, Karen’s sounding board, confidante, and uber-sensible “rock”, has to face some tough decisions about her relationship with an alcoholic. And Lou, the eyewitness to the tragedy, takes Simon’s sudden death as a sign that she should be more honest with herself and others about her lifestyle. Over the course of the novel, all three women become friends, linked by a common tragedy.
It would be easy for these three women to fall into certain stereotypes, but Rayner manages a delicate balance with each character. She gives very little backstory about each woman, including only those details essential to the plot. There are a few flashback scenes which help to provide some context to the action, such as Karen and Simon’s first date, and how Anna met her boyfriend Steve. Rayner says very little about Lou’s past—all we know about her in the present is that she is struggling with keeping her sexuality a secret. She wants to be up front with her family and colleagues, but is worried about repercussions, so she’s kept quiet. But after seeing Simon collapse, and realizing just how fragile life is, she starts to think that maybe keeping quiet is a mistake. Over the course of the novel she slowly reveals the truth about herself to a select few.
The entire novel occurs over the span of a week, starting on Monday with Simon’s collapse and ending with his funeral on Sunday (other than a brief epilogue set a few months later). Rayner does an admirable job of letting her characters go on about their regular lives, yet all three carry the persistent weight of sadness and loss with them, much as we do in real life. It has also been my experience that the immediate mourning period is approximately one week, until after the funeral is over and real life must continue in earnest, so Rayner chose an appropriate time frame, as well.
One thing Rayner didn’t do, which I appreciated, is tie everything up neatly at the end of the novel. At the conclusion, Anna still has some guilt over her boyfriend Steve. Lou meets an attractive woman and they experience immediate sparks, yet the story ends and they’re still getting to know each other—the reader is left wondering if they found “happily ever after”. The one relationship I felt Rayner could have structured a bit differently was that of Anna and Simon. Although Simon is Karen’s husband and Karen is Anna’s best friend, I had the sense that there had been more to Anna and Simon’s relationship at one time. Although Anna is clearly grieving for her friend, at times it seemed the emotion was so profound, perhaps it was something more. Did Anna and Simon have a history of their own? Rayner never says this, but I certainly got that impression. Part of me wanted to keep reading to see if any sordid affairs from the past would come to light.
One Moment, One Morning gives readers the chance to do something few novels do—take a step back and really think of how delicate life is, and how quickly it can change from moment to moment. Rayner writes realistic, relatable characters who are simply trying to deal with the overwhelming feelings sudden change can bring, and she writes them well.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com