Simon and Schuster, 2008, 288 pages
A good novel lingers, like an anesthesia, clinging to you long after it’s over. I finished Oxygen this week and three days later I’m still thinking about it. Without being a full-fledged mystery novel, Oxygen delivers enough of a who-done-it feel to keep you on the edge of your seat while hitting close enough to home to stay believable. Marie Heaton, a highly regarded physician in her respected Seattle hospital, is wading through the emotional and legal aftermath of an operating room tragedy. At the same time, a faded romance from the past is edging its way back into her life while she also navigates the awkwardness of helping her aging dad realize his dependency. Work stress, romantic uncertainty, and family tension swirl into a perfect storm for Marie’s life.
This was Carol Cassella’s first novel, but her writing is fabulous. She writes as naturally about a doctor’s morning routines “sorting through stacks of paperwork, unfolding sterile blue drapes across massive tables, adjusting lights, spreading out fields of stainless steel” as she does about the backyard at Marie’s dad’s house, “the green weedy lawn, the rotting fence, the caving garden shed, the leggy wands of my mother’s roses, grown amok.” A child’s bedroom, a vacant strip-mall lot, a bachelor pad, and a theme park are each hung around the reader’s mind like theater scenes, evoked completely with the briefest of descriptions. Cassella’s narrator, Marie, is ordinary and natural, preferring “a faded cable-knit sweater in army green, blue jeans, and water-stained clogs” to trendy fashions, not ashamed to kneel in the grass with a niece who wants to play princesses, and willing to swallow her fear of flying if the trade-off is a private picnic lunch with her best friend who happens to be an amateur pilot.
Oxygen delivers a satisfying ending without being cheesy. It’s got characters with honor, aiming to do the right thing in a difficult world. It’s serious without being too heavy, romantic without being sappy, and insightful without being philosophical. Oxygen won’t disappoint as a quick read for summer on the beach or winter by the fireplace. Three cheers for this contemporary novel. Can’t wait to dive into Cassella’s other books!