Susannah Rice is the type of woman who makes other women feel inadequate. She is beautiful, perfectly dressed, with a handsome husband, two daughters and a media career to go with her medical practice. She is an acclaimed expert on children and their health, famous enough that “Doctor Sue” is enough to identify her.
Tragedy ensues when Susannah leaves her six-month-old daughter in the back seat of her car on a hot New York morning. Grief is compounded by fear as the police begin to question whether the accident reflects her negligence as a mother, suggesting that wanting to have it all has made Susannah overreach herself. The consequences of her mistake spin wildly out of her control.
Breaking Point has all the hallmarks of a future bestseller. Written in an economical, stripped-back style, it has the pace, setting and glamour of a Hollywood thriller. The opening sequence is compelling and hugely effective as one tiny mistake leads to the next, and the next. The reader knows exactly why the car alarm keeps going off on that sunny day – Susannah is preoccupied with saving another child’s life. (You will note here that it’s not exactly subtle; you are supposed to squirm at the irony, and you do.)
Breaking Point is presented as an edge-of-your-seat thriller, and to some extent it is. But it is in the novel's quiet drama that the quality of the writing shines
The police question her afterwards and she handles it badly, but then it’s no wonder she sounds guilty when she feels guilty about what happened. Susannah’s grief is beautifully conveyed – the tenderness of Edel Coffey’s descriptions elevates this beyond the status of page-turner, although it is that too.
When Susannah finds herself in court, Coffey gives us an outstandingly good portrait of a woman on trial who discovers too late she is entirely the wrong person to win sympathy from others. She doesn’t know how to show her emotions when her whole professional life involves hiding them. When she is truthful, does the jury respond to that or does it find her unappealing? Should she lie to seem more likable?
Small compromises – the kind that most working parents make – suddenly assume a horrifying significance. Susannah is proud of her career, her daughters and her marriage, but in the courtroom they seem like further proof of her moral and personal failure. If she had been a man, Susannah’s attitude to her work and her children would be unremarkable, but everything is different for women. Susannah is shown to be at the mercy of two juries, one in the courtroom and the other in the court of public opinion.
Adelaide Gold, a reporter shadowing Susannah, has a personal insight into her difficulties because she too has experienced terrible grief. She too has failed to balance her work with her personal life. Her job is to present Susannah to the public so they can enjoy her downfall. It’s ironic, again, that she knows more about Susannah than she can admit. The two women’s stories fit together, hammering home the conclusion that it’s impossible to be a mother and a professional and not sacrifice something along the way, even if it’s just your self-respect. And yet, what else can they do? This is a game with no winners.
There’s a lot to debate here, and the debate sometimes overwhelms the plot. Without the trial, the book loses its narrative focus, but it’s a struggle to believe that any prosecutor would want to punish Susannah on the evidence as it’s presented. The courtroom scenes are the weakest aspect; they feel implausible and flimsy. The plot demands a staggering lack of empathy from many other characters, such as the newsroom bosses hungry for blood, the publisher who drops Susannah at the reception after the baby’s funeral, and the parents who refuses to have her as their child’s doctor.
It feels as if we are only seeing the worst of people – but then, Susannah doesn’t want kindness or empathy because she doesn’t feel she deserves it. If she wasn’t such a complex and interesting character, none of this would work, but she is, and so it does.
Breaking Point is presented as an edge-of-your-seat thriller, and to some extent it is; you will certainly want to know what’s going to happen in the end. But it’s in the novel’s quiet drama that the quality of the writing shines – the small domestic moments, the trivial disasters, the fragile joys, the compromises of a marriage, the sacrifices and rewards, the successes that feel like failures, and the failures that might lead, in the end, to hope.