Thursday, January 14, 2016

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Some of you may be old enough to remember what might be called the first reality TV show, "This is Your Life." It was a sometimes awkward, always maudlin, tear-inducing show that chose some unsuspecting person from the audience and highlighted the ups and downs of their life so far. Often there were walk-ons from one's past, someone with whom the "star" had interacted without even realizing the effect the star had had on said person's life.

Well, for some reason, after reading a couple of reviews of Jonathan Evison's ( new novel, "This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" I was expecting a comedy. I should have thought of the TV show earlier! While there are some laugh-worthy moments in Evison's book, they are wry laughs, not guffaws. For this is a book, as he says in his acknowledgements, dedicated to all the unfulfilled women out there who dreamed of greater things but settled for less, either because of the times in which they lived or because they were thwarted by the pressures of marriage and children.
This is Your Life, Harriest Chance!

Younger women may have trouble even relating to this story about seventy-eight-year-old Harriet but it's worth the read as a cautionary tale. We give up our dreams at our peril. Harriet has just buried her husband Bernard after an emotionally draining year and a half as his full-time caretaker. Bernard's fall to Alzheimer's disease was quick and relentless.

Harriet answers the phone one day shortly after Bernard's death to be informed that Bernard has won a cruise to Alaska. Alaska? Harriet had no idea that Bernard wanted to go to Alaska, nor was she aware that he had entered a sweepstakes. But, as Harriet always has, she defers to Bernard's judgment, deciding that if he thought they should have gone then she'll go, inviting her best friend Mildred to accompany her.

Evison toggles back and forth, in short, punchy chapters, over the seventy-eight years of Harriet's life, slowly revealing a complex picture of a woman whose self-esteem was persistently battered by a cold, uncaring mother, while her father enticed her with work in his law firm, a place that teased her into believing she could have a career in law, though it was more likely her role was simply to be sexy window dressing.

Finally free to make her own decisions, Harriet embarks on the Alaskan cruise even after Mildred reneges at the last minute, handing Harriet an explanation letter that gets shoved into her luggage along with Bernard's ashes. I found myself so hoping that this would be Harriet's chance at liberation.

Ultimately though, this novel is less uplifting and more than a little discouraging. Harriet's relationships with her son Skip and daughter Caroline have been tense and unfulfilling. Bernard, we discover, has been an absentee father even when he's been home in his chair, head buried in a newspaper. Now that he's dead he wants to redeem himself, to ask forgiveness, popping up by Harriet's side at most inopportune moments. Yes, you must suspend disbelief to read this book.

Jonathan Evison has been called wistful and wise and bighearted. He wants women like our moms, our teachers, and all the other unsung heroes who subsumed their dreams and desires so that we could fulfill ours, to know that he sees them. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not he succeeded.

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