It Could Be Worse
by Dara Levan

Published: 2024-03-12T00:0
Paperback : 368 pages
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“Visceral and moving,” (Andra Watkins, New York Times bestselling author), It Could Be Worse is a tale of acceptance and awakening—but not necessarily forgiveness—that reminds us we can choose how our stories end.

Mired in self-doubt and blind loyalty, Allegra Gil suspects ...

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“Visceral and moving,” (Andra Watkins, New York Times bestselling author), It Could Be Worse is a tale of acceptance and awakening—but not necessarily forgiveness—that reminds us we can choose how our stories end.

Mired in self-doubt and blind loyalty, Allegra Gil suspects her charmed life may be a gilded cage. She has a devoted husband, Benito, two loving children, a thriving therapy practice, and lifelong friends. But when a surprising discovery in a piano bench reveals a shocking family secret, Allegra questions everything she thought she knew about the two people who raised her. Was it true? Did her father, a respected pediatric neurosurgeon, harm instead of heal? And Allegra’s mother—how much did she know?

As the past threatens the present, Allegra plays the song of what was, what is, and what may never be in this “powerful and poignant story about letting go” (Jean Meltzer, international bestselling author of The Matzah Ball).

Composed with the cadence of a waltz—up, up, down—through flashbacks to childhood memories in Miami and a music camp in Michigan, It Could Be Worse is a heartwarming, at times heart-wrenching, multigenerational story of a woman supported and embraced by many while shaken to the core by a few. “The gorgeous prose and raw, unflinching narrative both heal and inspire. A stunning debut.” (Samantha M. Bailey, USA Today and #1 international bestselling author of Woman on the Edge)

Dara Levan writes about love, loss, resilience, and how radiance emerges from our breaking points. She’s the founder and host of the Every Soul Has a Story podcast and blog. A graduate of Indiana University, Dara is a former pediatric speech-language pathologist who lives in Fort Lauderdale. Learn more at daralevan.com.

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Chapter One

My life was about to change. But when, I had no idea. Timing is everything. And not just in music.

The bench creaked beneath me as my fingers explored the major and minor keys. Maybe I’d imagined the stuck Middle C? It was difficult to discern with the chorus of other instruments in the music shop. Thankfully, my father had agreed to meet me here. A lifelong pianist, he’d be able to detect any imperfections.

A vibration in the pocket of my short swing dress startled me. Withdrawing my phone, I read the text letting me know he’d arrive soon. Nearby, a girl gripped a shiny cello and grabbed the thickest string like she was about to launch an arrow, fingers dancing in front of her eyes as if nothing else existed. The woman, likely her mother, seemed embarrassed and yanked the girl away.

The girl moaned faintly as she trailed behind her mother out of the store. My heart sank for these two strangers, but my father’s entrance distracted me. With an air of authority, he held the door open for them and smoothed his thick, silvery hair. He nodded to the store manager while buttoning his Polo shirt and tightening his leather belt.

A new wave of discomfort, more persistent and painful, tugged me back to the present. My phone buzzed again, and I noticed the bars on my cell were low. Hoisting my body from the bench required the momentum of a full aria. The stirring inside me increased while I waddled toward the lanky salesman behind the desk.

“May I make a quick call?” I pointed to the phone. The man smiled and took it off the wall. I was never so thankful for a long cord. I stretched it and wondered about the one that connected me to my baby, and the kicks quickened as if my little boy felt my own intensifying emotions. My clammy hand moved toward the tender musical movements inside me.

On the third ring, she picked up. “Who is this?”

“Mom, it’s me, Allegra. Did you call?” I held the receiver closer, and the silver hoop in my ear fell to the floor.

“I can barely hear you,” she said impatiently.

I shrugged out of my cardigan, trying to cool down. “We’re still at the store. I’m at the front and worried, Mom. I keep having pain in my stomach, and I may be going into labor.” I inhaled through my nose, employing the calming technique I taught my patients in therapy.

“Your father’s a doctor and a brilliant one, you know. So, ask him—I’m sure you’re fine. I need to run. I have a nail appointment.”

Before I could respond, my mother hung up.

As my dad came closer, I waved Mozart sheet music in the air like a white flag. His belly collided with mine in an attempted hug. I settled for a shoulder squeeze, relieved he’d come to help me—yet again. I’d called on him numerous times since my pregnancy hormones started surging along with my indecision. Hormone haze. That’s what my husband, Benito, named it.

The palm fronds outside brushed the bay window. I glanced at the cloudless, cerulean sky, grateful that we lived in Miami. Dad positioned himself on the smooth bench. After adjusting it, he motioned for me to join him. I briefly wondered if it could hold our weight as I eyed its wobbly legs. I picked up where I’d left off, the third stanza on the second page. My tummy tightened, and I tried not to wince.

“The sound is off,” Dad said, evoking his professional voice. I always knew when he was talking to patients because his pitch would drop, and he’d slow his pace. It’s what my brother, Jack, and I had termed his “Dr. Curt” voice. He used it now as he leaned closer to the keys and struck each note, one by one. “I could swear I heard a defective key,” he said. Yes, Dr. Curt heard, saw, noticed everything. He was always right. He had to be.

Maneuvering two beings, even a smidgen, felt like hauling a human house. As my breathing slowed, the baby kicked, mimicking the lullaby his soon-to-be grandfather now played. Even at sixty-two years old, Dad remembered our special song. His deft fingers glided up and down the keys. I quietly rubbed my stomach for fear of interrupting him, but the cramping crescendoed.


He didn’t respond as he pumped the brass damper pedal. I leaned to the left, my jaw clenching along with my insides.

“Allegra, why are you pushing into me?” Dad lifted his hand from the baby grand and placed it on my upper back.

I tried to relax into his palm. “I don’t know what’s happening,” I whispered. “There’s a squeezing sensation in my stomach. It’s erratic but stronger each time.” I cradled the bottom of my belly as the next cramp began.

Dad placed his warm hand over mine and told me to hush. His keen gunmetal-gray eyes moved like a metronome from my scrunched face to his wristwatch. “It seems you are having mini contractions. But it’s nothing to worry about. This is how the body prepares for birth. Just like dress rehearsals before your performances at camp.”

The pain ceased as my muscles relaxed, temporarily transporting me to those summers in the woods: the fragrant pines so different from my familiar palms and Ficus trees, the lake that wasn’t salty, the sound of teenage voices holding harmonies the same way we held our hands.

Dad refocused his attention on the shiny black and white keys. He straightened his bifocals and played a few chords. Johannes Brahms’s serene lullaby coaxed me back toward the baby grand. Seeing Dad’s diligence and focus, I didn’t dare disrupt his solo. Those solid, skilled hands had excised tumors from such young patients. His mastery of musical and medical skills mesmerized me; I remembered watching instructional videos in which he artfully taught students how to use a scalpel.

I loved listening to my father in this rare time, just the two of us. My hands drifted to my belly, waves of life lulling beneath the gentle tune. Then I recognized the familiar melody—“Cradle Song”—the one he used to play when I would sit on his lap as a child.

Only when he finished the final note did he notice me. “This isn’t the one, Allegra.” Dad cracked his thick knuckles before rising from the bench. “The piano is mediocre.” He raised his voice, loud enough for everyone to hear. “I know the store manager; he is an idiot. You shouldn’t settle—ever.” He pushed the bench back in place, my cue to exit the premises.

“Where’d you park?” I asked, following him to the door.


“Oh, D-d-d-dad.” I laughed. “Ben says I’m a smart-ass like you.”

“Your husband is clearly brilliant.” He chuckled and poked my bicep. “Your stomach isn’t the only thing that has grown, sweetheart.”

I crossed my arms, ashamed, as heat flushed my cheeks. Maybe I should have put the cardigan on again. Then I saw the store manager and excused myself.

“Sir?” I tapped him, and he turned around. “Thank you for your time. And I’m sorry for my father’s abruptness. He means well and just wants the best of everything.”

I peeled the remaining purple nail polish off my pinky as I strolled back toward my dad. He didn’t bother hiding his disappointment when he looked at me. Leave it to Dr. Curt to detect the most subtle of defects—whether in a piano or in me. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

Questions from the author:

This is a story of empowerment and living your truth. What did that look like for Allegra? What did it look like for her brother Jack?

Have you ever felt you were being held captive emotionally as Allegra and Jack were? How did you deal with it? How did/didn't it lead you to a sense of freedom from it?

Why did Allegra wait so long to tell her husband about the note she found? Do you think she should have told him sooner, or in a different manner?

Would you have made the same decision as Allegra did at the end?

What did camp deliver to Allegra’s life that her home life didn’t?

Can you judge this book by its cover? What elements resonated with you?

Why is this book called "It Could Be Worse," and how did/didn't that concept trap Allegra from taking action?

Why did Allegra admire her father so much, if he was also controlling and dismissive?

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