Romeo and Juliet had it easy compared with Jacob and Laynie, the contemporary lovers who thrash their way through early marriage in Steven Wingate's absorbing novel "The Leave-Takers."
Jacob, a sculptor and jack of many trades from Boston, grieves and rages over his parents' murder-suicide, which happened when he was 14, and the subsequent heroin overdose death of his only sibling. He has created an online forum for survivors of familial murder-suicide, which is every bit as dangerous as it is cathartic.
Laynie, a Californian, is locked in sorrow over the death of her mother when she was a child and the recent deaths of her beloved father and her pre-Jacob fiancé, as well as multiple miscarriages. She travels the country in a vehicle full of her father's mementos, ritually dropping them off here and there in a futile effort to shed her sadness.
The two first meet in Los Angeles, but their demons pull them apart. At the beginning of this novel, they meet again in a small town in South Dakota, where, despite grave doubts and worsened neuroses, they marry and settle down in the rural home Jacob inherited from an aunt and uncle. The unforgiving terrain is an apt backdrop for their struggles.
Very soon, almost everything goes wrong. As if obsession with death and the ghosts it breeds aren't enough, both are prone to dayslong binges on pilfered prescription pills. They are dangerously close to taking leave of their troubled lives, of exiting what Jacob calls "The Void" of sorrowful, meaningless existence for the greatest void of all, death.
And yet, this is overwhelmingly a love story, and a surprisingly sweet one.
Can Jacob and Laynie, who have going for them artistic gifts, a few loyal friends and good if troubled hearts, make it despite their gothic inclinations? It's touch and go. "Life is the boring part with all the repetition, and death is when you get to laugh," writes Laynie, who sees herself as "a ferrywoman between two realms," in a letter to her dead father.
Wingate, who teaches English at South Dakota State University in Brookings, knows a thing or two about the complexities of grief and addiction, and there's not a false moment in the couple's seemingly endless harrowing experiences, which thankfully are sometimes touched with humor.
Jacob and Laynie cannot save each other simply with love. But at some point, leaning into each other, they are able to stay upright, and to develop the wisdom and patience to keep from snuffing each other out like Romeo and Juliet.
The book's final chapter is a bit much, jumping into the future to fill us in on everything that will happen to our star-crossed couple in the years to come. But with or without it, "The Leave-Takers" does literary justice to a complex and arresting love story.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
By: Steven Wingate.
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 336 pages, $24.95.