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Oh, The Stories We Tell

Issue 274

Fran Hawthorne's new book, I Meant to Tell You, is a redemptive tale that illuminates the tenuous ties that bind us.

Eleanor J. Bader Sep 25

It’s safe to say that everyone sometimes lies, whether by omission of key facts, embellishment or complete fabrication. And it is also a safe bet that, while we often get away with our deception, the crumbling trust that ensues when we are unmasked can make us wonder what we were thinking when we concocted the fib. Worse, the unraveling can cause an avalanche, especially if the untruth is foundational. 

Miranda Isaacs, a 32-year-old healthcare analyst at the fictional Center for Liberal Alternatives in Washington, DC, is getting a crash course in these realities. As the protagonist in Fran Hawthorne’s complex, evocative and nuanced second novel, I Meant To Tell You, the world begins to splinter when her fiancé, Russ Steinmann, is vetted for a job with the U.S. Attorney’s office and a routine security check reveals that seven years back, she was charged with kidnapping. While the charge was eventually reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, the investigation shatters the couple’s domestic tranquility since Russ knew nothing about his partner’s arrest history.

Miranda Isaacs’ marriage begins to crumble when her politically-ambitious husband learns she was once charged with kidnapping.

“Any false statement or inaccurate information during the employment application process may result in the revocation of the position, as well as collateral consequences,” Russ furiously explains when the facts come to light. “I could lose my job,” he says.

Tensions mount and the couple agrees to temporarily separate. This decision sends Miranda back to her mother’s suburban Maryland home to lick her wounds and regroup. 

A cascade of revelations then unfolds. Among them, Miranda reaches out to Ronit, her long-estranged college best friend, to replay the incident that led to the arrest. It’s an emotional and beautifully-wrought scene, bristling with tension as the two reexamine Ronit’s attempted flight to Israel with her toddler daughter to escape Ronit’s physically and psychologically abusive husband. 

The limits of sisterhood — how far any of us might go to help a beloved and endangered friend — are parsed, without resolution. After all, these are not issues that can be easily pegged to a formula.

But there’s much more to the story. After the arrest comes to the fore, Miranda and her mom have more than a few difficult exchanges, including a discussion about Jerry Isaacs, Miranda’s father. Miranda had always been told that Jerry was a militant, anti-Vietnam War protester who later went to California to work on the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott. His death in a motorcycle crash when Miranda was six month old has become a family legend. Throughout her childhood and the childhoods of her two much younger siblings, Jerry was held up as a masculine paragon, a firebrand who embodied progressive political principles, self-sacrifice,and unwavering bravery. 

Miranda’s father was a paragon of progressive political principles, self-sacrifice and unwavering bravery who died when she was six months old, or so she was told. 

Turns out, Judith pretty much invented this persona to inspire her kids, creating a near-perfect being who hovered over them as they came of age. The truth — that Judith had been a pregnant teen who had no idea what happened to Jerry Isaacs, a kid she slept with only a handful of times — receded over time as Judith concocted story after story about Jerry’s short but heroic life. In fact, by the time she discovered she was pregnant, Jerry was long gone and she had no idea how to tell him that she was carrying his child.

It’s an amazing disclosure, rendered realistically and matter-of-factly. Indeed, the richly-drawn characters in I Meant To Tell You are both wholly human and wholly believable; humor and pathos seamlessly intertwine in this resonant and revealing narrative. 

The novel is a redemptive tale and as the tenuous ties that bind us are illuminated, it will make you smile, grimace and, most importantly, think about the stories you tell.

I Meant to Tell You by Fran Hawthorne
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 268 pages, $22.00
November 2022; now available for pre-order.

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