Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock

Sep 3, 2014

I can't think of a way to review this book without giving things away, so read at your own risk. If you decide not to read past this point, I want you to know that I would definitely recommend it (but be warned, there is some language).

You know how there are some books that, when condensed down to a basic plot summary, sound far from appealing? This is one of those books: When Lucy Chandler was five years old, her father (a police officer) was shot and killed. At age 17, her mother died of breast cancer. On her 21st birthday, she meets Mickey Chandler, a young man with bipolar disorder. They get married. A few years into their marriage, Lucy gets breast cancer, and Mickey goes off the deep end. She goes through treatment, Mickey stabilizes, and they decide never to have children. Several years later, after a follow-up exam, Lucy finds out that she is somehow, miraculously, pregnant. But just a few weeks after that, her doctor discovers that her cancer has returned and has invaded her lungs. It is most likely terminal. Oh, and did I mention Lucy's two sisters, one of which struggled with infertility and a failed adoption and the other who had a terrible relationship with their mom and is an extreme pessimist? Or Mickey's mother, who committed suicide when he was just a child and his father and brother who didn't know how to help him deal with his illness? The whole thing sounds like sunshine and roses, right?

But of course, in my bare bones summary, I left out Mickey's humor and intense desire to be in control of his illness; I didn't tell you about Lucy's loyalty and good attitude in the darkest of times; I didn't mention Charlotte Barbee or Gleason Webb (Lucy's and Mickey's doctors) who are like surrogate parents to them, along with a host of other neighbors and friends who support and encourage and help; I didn't talk about the strong bond between Lucy and her sisters or Mickey and Lucy's excitement over an unexpected baby or the incredible resiliency of the human spirit.

And that is why sometimes a summary just isn't good enough because there's no way to let you know that even though it sounds like it's going to be dark and heartbreaking and depressing, hope and love can rise above and turn it into an uplifting and thought-provoking read. The title, taken from an analogy Gleason gives Mickey and Lucy when they are deciding if they should really get married, is the perfect description of this book: dancing (joyful, carefree, invigorating) on broken glass (painful, sad, traumatic), but dancing just the same.

About halfway through the book, I let myself wonder if this book was just filled with too many challenges and trials? So I tried to imagine the story without some of them. I pictured it without the cancer, without the bipolar disorder, without the deaths of loved ones. But each time I pictured Lucy and Mickey's life differently, the story fizzled in my mind. It lost its impact and poignancy. The very reasons I was loving it so much were gone. So I decided I'd take the whole package, issues and all, without any changes (as if I had any say in the matter).

Ka Hancock (pronounced "Kay," just in case you were wondering) has two nursing degrees and spent much of her career with psychiatric and substance abuse patients. From my limited viewpoint, it appears this training and experience paid off because the book came across as heart-wrenchingly authentic. It was fascinating (and a little terrifying) to learn more about bipolar disorder, which I've always given the limited and inaccurate definition of "intense mood swings." Seeing this illness through Mickey's (and Lucy's) perspective was eye-opening, especially because he fights it so valiantly but has moments where he succumbs before he resumes the battle with a vengeance.

When Lucy sees Mickey's first real breakdown (after they get engaged but before they get married), she describes it like this: "When I was in the third grade, we had a fire that burned down the school. We'd been trained with a fire drill every month and we knew what to do, but we never imagined it would actually happen. That was how this felt to me, as if everything I had learned to this point had been a kind of drill for what was never supposed to happen." What a great analogy for many of life's challenges, not just bipolar disorder.

The story is told from both Lucy's and Mickey's points of view, although Lucy recounts the bulk of the story until the last fifty or so pages when Mickey takes over the narrative entirely. As much as I loved Lucy's character, it wasn't until I walked with Mickey through his grief that the tears began to freely flow. When Lucy asks him to get her some ice, and I remembered this was exactly what Lucy's mom asked Lucy to do before she died, my eyes pricked. And when Mickey contemplates returning to his house without Lucy, he says this, "It was an empty house, unchanged from the morning Lucy woke up so sick and so sore she had me call the doctor. I had poured her some apple juice that she'd refused. It was still on the counter. The bed wasn't made, there was laundry in the dryer, and we were out of milk. How could everything stay exactly the same when the unimaginable had changed everything?" Somehow the idea of that glass of apple juice sitting on the counter just made me weep. Later on, he mentions her footprints being vacuumed up and erased, and I cried again. My heart had a tender spot for Mickey.

It's obvious that Ka Hancock spent a lot of time with her characters and really came to understand their personalities, motives, and dreams. The supporting cast was just as real to me as Mickey and Lucy. Early in the story, when Ron proposes to Lily, Lucy describes the scene this way: "He might as well have asked me, because my reaction could not have been more bride-to-be-like. I leaped up and started screaming and jumping on Mom's bed while Ron kissed Lily and Priss turned up the TV." In just two sentences, Ka Hancock captured Lucy's exuberance, Lily's sweetness, Ron's dependability, and Pricilla's sourness. The whole book was filled with little moments and details like that.

During the course of this review, I've touched a lot on Mickey's mental illness and Lucy's cancer, but I've said very little about Lucy's pregnancy and the resulting baby. That adds a whole other dimension to the book, but I tried to refrain from spoiling everything for those of you who decided to read ahead anyway.

Ultimately, the book was really just about love and how the love one person gives to another can triumph over imperfection, illness, anger, grief, mistakes, and even death. It can cross all barriers and difficulties. One of my favorite lines in the entire book was this: "Mickey told me later that falling in love with me wasn't just his destiny, it was his crusade." He was worried that he was selfish to ask Lucy to love a broken man, but we are all broken, and we all deserve someone to love us unconditionally and fight for us unceasingly.

That's what this book is about.


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