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Wednesday, September 1,2010

When a Haven is no safe haven

Dreams and reality clash in Kristina Riggle’s ’Life’

by Bill Castanier
Hopefully, novelist Kristina Riggle doesn’t have a class reunion on the horizon soon. It would be a bummer for anyone who had read her new book, “The Life You’ve Imagined.”

In her second novel, she writes of four women who are assessing not only where they are in life, but also where they are going. Their assessments about where they are in life aren’t always uplifting, and Riggle cuts them no slack.


In her first book, “Real Life & Liars,” Riggle examined the members of a family as they approached various crossroads in their lives. This time, it’s four adult women, three of whom shared high school dreams together while the fourth is the mother of one of the women. All four find themselves tossed together for a summer in the old hometown and each must come to grips with the reality of how she is today versus the ideal person she set out to be.


Riggle — who will be reading and signing her new book Wednesday at Schuler Books & Music — has put quite a crew together for this novel. Cami and Anna were best friends in high school. Cami is forced to come home when one of her many addictions derails her life. Anna, a high-priced lawyer, returns to an old boyfriend and a mother with her own dismantled dreams. Then there’s Amy, the high school fat girl, who is now thin, beautiful and appears to have it all. Anna’s mother, Maeve, is still looking for her estranged husband to return while fighting to keep her corner store, which is the target of a gentrification push.


They all convene in Haven, a fictional Michigan town and Riggle’s amalgam of Grand Haven, South Haven and other numerous Michigan beach towns the author knows well.


Riggle’s book bravely attacks an American assumption that if you work hard, and get those “gold stars,” as she calls them, you will be happy and successful.


Although Riggle began writing the novel several years ago, its theme of interrupted lives resonates in today’s economy.


“Growing up, we think success is guaranteed to come if we do the right things,” she says. “It’s not that simple.”


Riggle would be an editor at a decentsized daily newspaper if her own high school dreams had come true. After graduating from Michigan State University, Riggle worked for several small daily newspapers in Michigan before becoming a novelist.


Although Riggle said it wasn’t her intent, the possible closing of Maeve’s beloved Nee Nance, a classic corner store, serves as a metaphor for change. To the residents of Haven, the decades-old Nee Nance seemed like it would last forever, but now even its future is in doubt.


“The characters needed a crisis to deal with,” Riggle said. Not only are the personal lives of the four protagonists in disarray, but they find themselves in a Haven that itself is changing as the characters are.


Riggle has used western Michigan as a setting for both her novels. “It’s what I know most intimately, and it gives an authentic feel to what I write,” she says.


In one of the many earlier drafts of the book, Anna was a New York lawyer, but it didn’t work.


“There were little details I was tripping up on,” she says. “I’d never been there.”


So she switched Anna’s location to Chicago, which she had visited many times.


Her next novel is set in the Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill area and will examine a theme that weaves itself though her novels — the conflict between generations.


She said incorporating the corner store into the book was a natural for her: “The house I live in now is the first one I’ve lived in that isn’t near a corner store.”


She said the theme of the book — unfulfilled dreams — is something a lot of us must face.


“Change is not necessarily a failure,” she says. “It’s not a capitulation.”


As in her previous book, Riggle uses alternating chapters for each of the characters to take the lead in telling their story.


Toward the end of the book, when one of the women is packing for a move, Anna’s mom makes three piles: ”Keep, trash, donate.” That seems to say it all for the four women and how they are dealing with life.



Kristina Riggle


7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8 Schuler Books & Music 1982 Grand River Ave., Okemos (517) 349-8840



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