Portrait of an unsuspecting woman
November 5, 2015
I’m one who reads the acknowledgements at the back of books. Those mile-long, effusive thanks for all the people who’ve helped the author become an author and/or write the book. I like how this conventional page that typically presents a formidable list of names can shed light on the network of literary others associated with the author, as well as on how the book came together.
Jonathan Evison’s acknowledgements in his new book, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, go beyond the typical, deserving a shout-out. It is one of the best I’ve ever read.
“The author would like to gratefully acknowledge to [sic] following people: first, the courageous women in my life, the women who have nurtured me, educated me, disciplined me, sacrificed for me, suffered for me, and never forsaken me; my mom, my grandma, my sisters, my wife, and my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hanford, to name a few. The women who have often settled for less, the women who’ve never quite gotten their fair share, who have soldiered on in the face of inequity, frustration, and despair, who have forgiven beyond reasonable measure, absorbed beyond reasonable expectation, and given, given, given with no promise of recompense. I wanted to thank them with this portrait of one woman, inspired by all of them, from the moment of her conception, to her last breath.”
That one woman is 78-year-old Harriet Chance, whose fictional life Evison reveals with quirky brilliance, using a jocular Master of Ceremonies as a guide through Harriet’s reflections of her past life, “pinballing across the decades” between 1936 and 2015. Without sentiment, he advises, explains and encourages, creating a humorous, uplifting narrative despite the darkness that shadows Harriet’s life — the absence and bullying of Harriet’s husband, Bernard, throughout their long marriage; her parents’ indifference when she was a child; her troubled daughter Caroline, who embraced drugs, alcohol and theft; her best friend’s duplicity; and the law degree that got put aside for marriage and kids.
In the present, the widowed, 78-year-old Harriet receives a call about an Alaskan cruise that Bernard won in a silent auction before his death. Her children discourage her, but off Harriet goes to board the ship, even though her best friend Mildred backs out of the trip at the last minute. The first night on the boat, Harriet learns a startling truth about her past and, in response, gets drunk and messy in the boat’s bar, making a fool of herself with a plateful of crab legs and too many glasses of white wine. Out of the blue, the next day, her estranged daughter Caroline joins her on the boat, for infuriating reasons.
While Harriet marches through the gift shops of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan; makes amends with her daughter; befriends another cruiser, the morbidly obese Kurt Pickens; and attempts to make the best of the trip, she also mentally tries to put her life together in a way that makes sense. Why did she fail to hold the attention of her elusive husband? Why did Caroline become a misfit? How is it her devotion and servitude didn’t help her relationships with Bernard and Caroline? What happened to the frank, uncompromising, funny, tough woman she saw in her other self that wanted to become a lawyer?
“Ding-dong-ding, thwack-thwack-thwack, how on earth did we arrive way back here, Harriet? It’s 1946, and Vaughn Monroe is on the radio. If you listen closely, you can still hear them celebrating victory in Times Square,” says the MC, introducing us to a chapter when Harriet is nine-years-old. This is no ordinary life study, thanks not only to the MC but also the appearances of dead Bernard, popping up in the earthly realm to talk to Harriet, although he’s not sure what he’s trying to accomplish — and he’s getting himself in trouble with Heaven’s Chief Transitional Officer, Carmichael.
Bravo to Evison for pulling off the quirkiness without schmaltz and also departing from the heavy dysfunctional family story with a light touch, an insightful nod to life’s disappointments and a big hand for living one day, one week, one year at a time to the best of one’s abilities, and that includes with courage and forgiveness.