Leaving: A Novel

Image of Leaving: A Novel
Release Date: 
February 13, 2024
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“Roxana Robinson is one of our best novelists, writing about mature people and their very real emotions.”

Roxana Robinson is one of our best novelists, writing about mature people and their very real emotions. The couple at the heart of Leaving are in late middle age, one married, the other divorced. The book traces the arc of their relationship

Sarah and Warren are both from old families and meet as teenagers in “a tribal place,” Philadelphia’s Main Line, where social standing is everything. “They weren’t all rich; money wasn’t the main thing,” Robinson writes. “Philadelphia cared about a family’s longevity, not its wealth. Ostentation was frowned upon, no flashy cars or grandiose houses. Everyone went somewhere else in the summer, some ramshackle shingle building, tiny or rambling, owned outright or shared among three generations and 45 cousins, in the mountains or on a lake or on the New England shore.”

They go out for a while, but Sarah sees Warren’s Austin-Healey as a bit too flashy, and though she’s attracted she’s also scared by his talk of traveling to remote Bucharest on a lark. She imagines herself sitting in a communist cell.

Sarah misjudges Warren, concluding that he’s irresponsible and won’t protect her. Instead, she chooses another youth, Rob, who has electric blue eyes and says he’s going to write “long form” pieces for The New Yorker. But Rob becomes a man who can’t apply himself, who thinks that a friend who got a job heading the Yale Art Center must have pulled strings, not built an impressive career. Warren, meanwhile, becomes an accomplished Boston architect.

It's decades later, after Sarah divorces Rob that, by chance, she runs into Warren again at the opera. Both have grown children, and Warren remains unhappily married to Janet, the woman he found after Sarah fled. Warren doesn’t think Janet is smart enough for him. She has no curiosity about politics, books, or films. She thinks that France started World War I.

The situation is the opposite of Woody Allen’s film Interiors, in which E.G. Marshall leaves his chilly intellectual wife for an earthy type who doesn’t read. The daughter calls this new woman “a vulgarian.”

Warren tells Sarah, “I don’t want to hear what [Janet] thinks. When I go home everything turns gray. I’m just waiting to see you again.” They embark on an affair, and Warren tells his wife he’s leaving. Janet is devastated, of course, but it’s Kat, their daughter, who simply won’t allow Warren to leave. If he does, she will cut him off not only from her but from her unborn grandchildren. She’s implacable.

And that’s the central dilemma of the rest of the book. “I can’t lose my daughter,” Warren says over and over. The remaining pages hinge on Warren’s version of Sophie’s Choice. Stay with a woman he no longer loves (and abandon the woman he clearly does) or lose his family.

The author choses a decisive ending, but not a very satisfying one. The series of events is somewhat melodramatic and doesn’t ring as true as what came before. Is this really what Warren would have done?

Robinson is a master craftsman, and a wonderful prose stylist—particularly good with dialogue. This latest book is no less good, at least until its events takes an unwelcome turn.