What is normal? That’s one of the questions Tanya J. Peterson has us asking while we read Leave of Absence. It’s an engaging, heartbreaking read and if you only read one book this year, it HAS to be Leave of Absence. You won’t regret it and you’ll see the world a little differently. Peterson has done a phenomenal job writing about a taboo subject. In a world filled with science and understanding, you’d think we’d be more open to talking about mental health, but we shy away from it. Oliver Graham lost his wife and son in a terrible accident and blames himself for their deaths. Wanting to numb the terrible pain he attempts to commit suicide, but when his attempt is thwarted he’s taken to Airheaven Behavioral Center. There doctors and nurses try to get him to open up and talk about why he felt the need to take his own life, but Oliver keeps quiet. One day he reluctantly agrees to attend a music group where patients pick out songs or just listen to what’s being played. One song transports Oliver to a day he spent with his wife and he’s distraught, but another patient, Penelope, is there to offer support. Slowly they begin to form a friendship and rely on each other, while their friends and family members must cope with what the world thinks of them. From the opening scene, Peterson’s Leave of Absence is powerful and engaging with a few humorous moments. The writing is beautiful and the emotions Peterson conveys will leave you heartbroken and in tears. Character development is strong. She spends an equal amount of time on Oliver and Penelope and it’s enough to really let us connect with them. Penelope becomes enduring and you can’t help but love her. She’s a schizophrenic and has Eleanor Roosevelt telling her what to do. As we get to know what she’s experiences, you can’t help but think about real life and how there’s a real Penelope out there that doesn’t have a support system and that makes your heart ache. Oliver is an interesting character because he’s clearly suffering from survivors guilt and grieving for his family. Peterson doesn’t come out and tell us exactly what happens to Oliver’s family, but slowly she opens up like Oliver does. I can see why Oliver would attempt suicide and you can feel his desperation. We learn about how his parents died and I won’t say anything regarding their deaths, but he still has to live with that memory.While Leave of Absence is about Oliver and his life prior to the suicide attempt and after, it’s Penelope that is the heart of the novel. It’s through her that Oliver gets to heal and slowly open up. Oliver often questioned why he lived and I believe it was to encourage two people who clearly love each other not to give up. I admit, I had my doubts as to where Peterson was leading because she introduces Mariska, Penelope and William's newest neighbor. Mariksa has eyes for William and every time William spoke to her, I wanted them apart for Penelope’s sake. William never gives up on Penelope and every time he gave his reasons for loving her, I was sobbing my eyes out. Your heart aches for Oliver and Penelope, but you are cheering them on. The entire time I kept thinking, I’m so glad they had William and Matt. Peterson also gives us a glimpse into what people truly think about the mentally ill. William experiences it with his best friend, Rod, who often tells him Penelope is a lost cause. Oliver experiences it with his brother in law who questions if Oliver is fit to be left alone with his nieces and nephews. Peterson also touches upon an important problem in our society. Grief can make us do unthinkable acts and it’s okay to ask for help, but society always expects those grieving to be able to move on right away. I can’t help but think to the film, PS I Love You, where only a few months after Holly’s husband dies, her friends want her to sleep with a good looking Irishman hoping she’ll get over her grief. In Oliver’s case, his mother-in-law blames him for the death of daughter and grandson and even goes as far as to suggest Oliver should kill himself. Here we have two broken people who need help and while Oliver tries to deal with his emotions, his mother-in-law is blaming him for something he couldn’t have prevented. I have a few favorite scenes, but I adore the scene in which Oliver asks Penelope about the Kerffies, an alien form that are tiny who left their planet to explore Earth. My favorite quotes:"Caffeine even makes ghosts hyper. Let’s remember that next Halloween. We’ll send caffeinated ghosts out trick-or-treating and really raise some money for UNICEF.""When he looked at her, he didn’t see a schizophrenic; he simply saw the woman he loved, a wonderful human being."I loved Tanya J. Peterson’s Leave of Absence. It’s a powerful and engaging read. Novels on mental illness can either be well written or turn into a caricature. Peterson gives us detailed descriptions and we can feel the internal turmoil Oliver and Penelope are experiencing. I highly recommend Leave of Absence.Review originally posted at Literary, etc.