Book review: Unknown Caller

There are plenty of novels out there that tell the story of a marriage from the very differing perspectives of the two people in it: “Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff, “Mercury” by Margot Livesy and “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, to name a few. These books and others of the sort expose, often joltingly so, how little spouses actually know about each other, begging the question, how well can you ever know another person? And, as a reader (or a human, for that matter), How do you trust someone’s point of view over another’s?

Maine author Debra Spark delves into this point-of-view quandary with a fresh twist in her latest and fourth novel, “Unknown Caller.” She adds more provocation to the mix—the daughter of such a marriage.

Joel is married to Daniella, but nearly two decades before, he was married to Leisl. Joel and Leisl were married for five months before she made a quick and secretive exit. Doctor Joel and architect Daniella, who have a son, are happy together in their renovated Maine farmhouse. Sporadically, they get middle-of-the-night phone calls from various cities all over the world from Leisl, who is accusatory, loud and emotional. “‘What does she yell about?” Daniela asks on more than one occasion. “What doesn’t she yell about? Joel says. ‘You abandoned me. You don’t care. We could be starving and you wouldn’t care.’ He shrugs, defeated and maybe—just maybe—amused. The whole thing is ridiculous.”

But it isn’t ridiculous, because this is not just about a failed, short-lived marriage and an apparently unstable ex. Unbeknownst to Joel, Leisl was pregnant when she left him. Once he did find out, she refused to let him have any contact with their daughter, Idzia. He tries, and employs a number of legal routes over the years, but nothing works. Eventually, he tells Leisl that he will not provide any financial support without contact with the child. There is no contact.

As the novel opens, Joel gets one of the late-night calls. Leisl tells him that 17-year-old Idzia will be coming to stay with him within the week, throwing Joel into a tailspin of emotions over how he’ll deal with the young woman he calls his “invisible child.” His wife, meanwhile, inexplicably feels an attachment to her stepdaughter and is eager for her arrival. Joel drives to Logan Airport to pick up Idzia, but she never arrives. He has no way to reach Leisl, and he will never get a late-night call from her again.

From there, Spark gives the characters their honest representation by non-sequentially weaving in and out of the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s and back again, globetrotting and skillfully adding to the story’s suspense. There’s drama and, definitely, complicated situations, but this is not a spy thriller or a crime story, it’s about Leisl’s life and those involved in it. From the beginning to the poignant end, Spark intricately weaves the stories of the fragile yet resilient Leisl, Idzia, their great friend Bertie, Joel and others, unspooling a little of their lives at a time until, aha, we’re able to cast aside appearances and prejudgments and see them, from an authentic perspective, their lives untangled. Bertie, especially, and Daniella are strong secondary characters and their insights are clear and valuable.

Spark, (“Coconuts for the Saints,” “Good for the Jews”), a professor at Colby College who lives with her family in North Yarmouth, delivers an emotional page-turner that encompasses human frailties and secrets big and small.

Amy Canfield is the managing editor of The American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly and an editor of Maine Women Magazine.

What we’re reading

Here are the books piquing our interest right now:

Drums of Autumn” by Diana Gabaldon (the fourth book in the “Outlander” series)
“Amazing adventure, love and travel story taking place in 17th-century Scotland.”
—Karina Napier, sales director

“The King’s Curse” by Philippa Gregory
“Over the past year, I’ve read right through Philippa Gregory’s series of historical novels centered on the royal women of Tudor England. Escapism at its best!”
—Amy Paradysz, writer

“A Dance With Dragons” by George R. R. Martin (the fifth book in the series “A Song of Ice and Fire”)
“I like to read between the TV series’ seasons as a way to extend the story. It also gives me a chance to be smug and say, ‘You should read the books, there is so much detail you really don’t get with the show!’”
—Jessie Lacey, columnist

“Neon Green: A Novel” by Margaret Wappler
“Margaret Wappler is a journalist and host of my favorite podcast, Pop Rocket. The novel has been on my to-read list since summer. It’s a historical novel with some revisionist history. It’s both about family dynamics and aliens. What’s not to love?”
—Katie Bell, columnist

“My Life on the Road” by Gloria Steinem
“Looking for inspiration and courage on the road less traveled.”
—Le Anna Grosso, creative director

“An Unnecessary Woman” by Rabih Alameddine
“I just started this book, and I like the main character already, a woman in her 70s with a tumultuous past, who now lives alone in Lebanon and translates, for her eyes only, great works of literature into Arabic.”
—Amy Canfield, columnist

“Between Breaths: a Memoir of Panic and Addiction” by Elizabeth Vargas
“It’s inspiring to read about someone who is getting her life back together and finding a new happiness along the way.”
—Sue Miller, digital and social media

“Love and Other Ways of Dying” by Michael Paterniti
“A powerful collection of essays!”
—Claire Jeffers, columnist

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