The Inevitable Life Passage into Widowhood
Jonathan Evison has a rare gift. He can combine comedy and tragedy and make it all hugely entertaining, and then zing you with an insight that leaves you slightly breathless.
And so it is with This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! Harriet is such a poignant character – she has endured slights and outright betrayals, and lived much of life during a time when it was very difficult for women to break out of their prescribed roles. And yet – Harriet achieves a kind of hard-won peace, leading to the reaffirmation of the fact that humans will keep having learning experiences for as long as they live.
I’d like to get to other books about with women as main characters – specifically, widows, like Harriet. But I can’t let Jonathan Evison go without mentioning my favorite book of his: Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.
Now, this book has tragedy written all over it. The main character, Ben Benjamin, has lost both his children in an auto accident when he was in charge of caring for them. His marriage has broken up. He’s lost his job, the latest in a succession of jobs.
Jonathan is wrestling down mountains of debt, so he takes a job that would seem to set him up for even more depression and sadness – becoming the caregiver to Trevor, a teenager with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy.
What happens between these two characters, who are both sunk in depression, self-pity and self-recrimination, is truly magical. Ben and Trevor eventually set out on a road trip to Yellowstone National Park, picking up a carload of truly odd and wonderful characters on the way. You will feel like your heart has expanded after reading this book – it’s that good.
Here are a few of my favorites:
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. British author Penelope Fitzgerald was the very definition of a late bloomer. She married and raised kids, and cobbled together a sort of life through teaching and other jobs (her husband never found his niche in life, and she was mostly in charge of keeping the family fed and clothed). Though she worked in publishing she never actually published a book until she was 59. Then in her 60s, she won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Offshore.
Her novel The Bookshop is about a widow – Florence Green, who decides to open a small bookstore in a historic building in a Suffolk village. Then she makes the decision to stock Lolita, and let me just say that Suffolk is not ready for the culture shock.
This act of courage by Florence also gives a certain upper-class general’s wife the idea of leveraging the controversy to evict Florence from the historical building the general has her eye on.
Penelope Fitzgerald is a quirky and eccentric writer – not for everyone, but I love her work. Like Evison, she manages to combine comedy and tragedy in a mysterious alchemical mix.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. On a more upbeat note, this is a lovely novel about an Irish woman trying to recover from the loss of her beloved husband. Toibin, a recent Well Read guest, sketches a beautiful portrait of Nora, her worried and well-meaning children and her small town, which contains equal parts people who want to help Nora and people who want to keep her from spreading her wings. I love Toibin’s work – he has an extremely astute eye for human nature, but he’s also a very witty and sympathetic writer. One of my favorites.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. By one of the best writers working in America today, this is an unblinking account of the year after Didion lost her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack. Many of our viewers have probably read this book, but if you haven’t, it’s don’t-miss literature – Didion does an amazing job of describing her dislocation and grief, and somehow manages to rise above it to portray it with an objective eye.
Finally, I want to mention a novel by a writer that I think has some things in common with Jonathan Evison – John Irving. Both authors both possess a very dark but well-honed sense of humor, they both combine comedy and tragedy in their books and they both are fundamentally very sympathetic to the human condition. One more thing: they are both male, but they can create astute and insightful portraits of women.
I’m thinking of John Irving’s 1998 novel A Widow for One Year. This book is the life story of Ruth Cole, a woman with a family history so bizarre it defies easy summation. Like all John Irving’s books, this one is sprawling, full of amazing coincidences, multiple characters and narratives, and stories and sub-stories.
Ruth survives her upbringing (no small accomplishment). She becomes an accomplished novelist and in the midst of research for one of her books, inadvertently witnesses a murder. And yes, she becomes a widow, and that’s when the variable strands of her life start knitting together.