Trail Runner’s Book Review: Late Air by Jaclyn Gilbert

The novel Late Air was written by Jaclyn Gilbert, Little a, 2018. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark and first appeared in winter 2018 issue of our Trail Times newsletter. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.

As runners, we are used to the breathlessness that comes with exertion. Sometimes it is like that first cold plunge into the cold Atlantic Ocean, soon over as we settle into a rhythm. At other times, it is a dizzying gasping at the conclusion of a hard set of intervals. Whatever the cause and however painful, we know that it is only temporary. But what if a less dramatic, yet equally disturbing gasping for air becomes such a part of your everyday life that you come to think of it as normal?

This is the case for Murray, a Yale women’s running coach, and his literary archivist wife, Nancy. An unlikely couple, with absolutely nothing in common except a willingness to explore limits, they meet in Paris when Murray was training for the Olympics and Nancy was an art student. For a while they were living proof that opposites attract: Murray introduced Nancy to the world of sport and Nancy reciprocated with museum tours.

Their marriage began to falter when both expected the other to understand their feelings without having to voice them, in a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus standstill. This tendency peaks when a profound tragedy occurs, leading me to become frustrated with the characters, wanting to give them a truth or consequences nudge toward one another. After their divorce, both go their separate ways, but are still connected by triggered memories. While this section may seem overdone, for me it rang true. Now four years since my husband’s death, I find myself constantly in touch with him as a word, a scene, a dream evoke memories.

This is where Jaclyn Gilbert shines in a remarkably crafted first novel. Told in alternating chapters, Nancy’s sections are straightforward and seem to follow a rough timeline despite some meandering. Murry’s chapters are headed by day and stopwatch time, as befitting his regimented nature, but jump back and forth across the years more readily than do his wife’s. Here it is vital to pay attention to each subtle nuance as reflections flutter maddeningly back and forth across the pages in an English major’s delight.

Murray’s life becomes increasingly unhinged when his star athlete suffers sever head trauma during a solo golf course training run. There are rumors that Murray is more than just a coach to some of his girls as well accusations that he works them too hard and overlooks their unhealthy weight. Again, it is up to us to form our own opinion—Was Becky hit by an errant golf ball as Murray claims, or did she simply pass out from lack of nutrition?

Life for the couple eventually comes full circle and there are hints that they might be able to catch a few deep breaths of late air together, this time with Nancy poised as the runner and Murray recovering on the sidelines. At least that’s how I interpret it…

Ideal for an absorbing book club discussion, this work appeals on many levels: as a commentary on love and marriage, a dire warning against perfectionism and a plea to really listen between the lines. As runners, we will recognize ourselves in Murray’s obsession with PRs and training miles, as parents and coaches, we will perhaps be more mindful of the physical and mental state of our athletes, and as partners it is hoped we will move beyond self-absorption into a meaningful give and take.

Jaclyn Gilbert