In The Jigsaw Jungle by Kristin Levine, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Lions of Little Rock, 12-year-old Claudia Dalton's world is turned upside down the day her father disappears. What started out as a late night at work has spiraled into a missing persons case -- but then Claudia and her mom do hear from her dad. It turns out he's not missing at all. He's just gone to "think things over" and visit an old friend, whatever that means. This explanation does little to assuage Claudia's curiosity and confusion about why her father has left them. So when a mysterious envelope arrives for Claudia containing a cryptic note about her father's whereabouts and a puzzle piece, she sets out on an unexpected treasure hunt in the hopes of bringing her dad home.
After weeks of solving clue after clue, Claudia finally finds the answer to why her father has left -- he is gay. At first, this news only makes Claudia and her mother even more confused and angry. But through honest discussion, empathy, and an emotionally tumultuous summer, all members of the family come out of the experience stronger than they ever were before.
In the excerpt below from the book, which is written as a collection of video transcripts, emails, and text messages, Claudia and her father finally sit down to discuss his coming-out. Throughout Claudia's childhood, the pair have always bonded over a shared love of puzzles. So it is only fitting that the two have this momentous discussion while doing their favorite activity.
INT. HOTEL GAME ROOM--CONTINUOUS
Dad works the edge pieces. Claudia puts together a jaguar family: mom, dad, baby. Neither of them speaks. Finally, Dad clears his throat.
DAD Yes, Claudia. I'm gay.
Claudia studies the pieces she's working on and asks her next question without looking at him.
CLAUDIA When did you know?
DAD I think I've always known. But I didn't want to accept it. I spent most of my teens trying to convince myself that everyone had same-sex feelings, but that they were just too personal to talk about.
CLAUDIA Did that work?
DAD Not really.
CLAUDIA If you had those thoughts, why did you marry Mom?
DAD Because I loved her. She was my best friend. I thought maybe getting married would make those feelings go away.
CLAUDIA That wasn't fair to Mom.
DAD It wasn't. But, Claudia, when your mother and I were dating, you couldn't be openly gay and be a teacher. You couldn't get married. You couldn't have children. I wanted all those things! And I saw no way to get them as a gay man. So I decided to be straight.
CLAUDIA You can't decide to be straight.
DAD Of course you can't. No more than you can "decide" to be gay. I know that now. But I didn't then. I honestly thought if I worked hard enough, if I prayed long enough, I could fix anything. Including myself.
He works a few more pieces in silence.
DAD (CONT'D) I thought I was broken. That there was something wrong with me. It makes me so sad to think about it now.
CLAUDIA I still don't understand. If you realized those feelings weren't going away, why didn't you just tell us?
DAD I couldn't overcome the shame.
CLAUDIA Shame about being gay?
DAD No. I'd accepted that. About my dishonesty. I'd been lying for years to those I loved the most. How could I hurt you and Mom like that?
CLAUDIA You hurt us by not telling us. You hurt us by running away!
DAD I know I did and I'm sorry. But when I saw those happy couples on the news, celebrating their new right to marry, well, I just couldn't go home and face you and Mom. I wish I had done it differently, but I thought I needed some time to . . . try on the decision to come out.
CLAUDIA What about that email you sent me? The one inviting me to go with you to Papa's for the weekend? Were you going to . . .
DAD Yeah. I was thinking about telling you then.
CLAUDIA I'm sorry I didn't say yes.
DAD Claudia, this is not your fault. I'd been thinking about coming out for years. I thought maybe when you graduated high school, I . . . but then last February, when Nana died, I decided I didn't want to spend any more time pretending to be someone I wasn't. I had never given my mother a chance to know the real me; I didn't want to do that to you too.
CLAUDIA But why the puzzles?
DAD After the funeral, I realized many of the things I had done with Brian were things I had also done with you. So I found the first piece with C-3PO and put it in my wallet. I thought if you did the treasure hunt and watched the videos of when I was your age, maybe it would remind you of all the good times we've had together. Then maybe I could tell you the truth and you might still love me.
Claudia stops working the puzzle and looks up at him.
CLAUDIA Of course I still love you, Dad!
Dad's eyes fill with tears, but he can't bring himself to speak.
CLAUDIA (CONT'D) I'm mad as heck at you for leaving . . . but I still love you.
DAD Good. Because I love you too. I know I did the wrong thing, Claudia. I'm sorry I made a mess of coming out. I wish I had been braver. I wish I had been a fighter. I wish I had been like the others who fought for the societal changes I couldn't even imagine. But if I had, I wouldn't have had you. And being your father . . . it wasn't all a lie, Claudia. I know it might feel that way. But my love for you is not a lie.
Now Claudia's eyes fill with tears.
CLAUDIA Are you coming home?
DAD Yes. I bought a bus ticket back to Richmond for tomorrow.
CLAUDIA To our old house?
There are only a handful of pieces left now and they are working them slowly, trying to make them last.
DAD No. Mom and I talked about that. I'm going to get an apartment.
CLAUDIA You're going to get divorced?
DAD I think so. But we'll always be a family, Claudia. And I will always love you.
Only three pieces left now.
CLAUDIA I'll always love you too, Dad. But how do I know you won't leave again?
DAD Because I won't.
DAD What I mean is, I know it's going to take a while for you to fully trust me again.
DAD But that's okay. I can wait.
Claudia smiles. He hands her the last piece and she puts it into place. They both stare at the completed puzzle, the happy animal families smiling up at them.
DAD (CONT'D) Is there anything else you wanted to ask?
Claudia thinks for a moment.
CLAUDIA Yes. Actually, there is.
She gestures to his clothes.
CLAUDIA (CONT'D) What's with the outfit?
CLAUDIA I mean really, Dad. Biking shorts and a tight T-shirt?!
DAD Too much?
CLAUDIA You're a walking cliche.
DAD I was trying a new look!
CLAUDIA Remember that time I dyed my hair green?
DAD Yeah. It's that bad?
CLAUDIA Can't you just be gay in your dress shirts and math ties?
Dad laughs again.
DAD Are we okay, Claudia?
CLAUDIA Not yet. But I think we will be.
And they both smile.
Excerpted from The Jigsaw Jungle, out June 19, courtesy of Penguin Random House books.