No one couple had played a more important role in his and Maida’s lives than Ed and Gayle Donnelly.
The lingering question is, what didn’t he know? After Gene’s wife Maida unexpectedly dies days following complications from routine surgery his world is upended. He remembers an argument about knowing, what is useful to know and what isn’t. In relation to death, it would only increase fear, change nothing but Maida, being more logical, preferred to know. Strange a year later she’d be dead. He picks at their past like an infected wound. Was she happy? He had never asked her about the ‘tucked-away life’ that is usually ‘secret even to oneself most of the time’, and also kept things from her.
Their dear friends Ed and Gayle are trying to keep him afloat in the waves of his grief, loss. But there is a story that makes him realize that the life they shared for so long had stories that he was never a part of, stories new to his old ears. How could that be? How could there be unknowable parts of Maida’s life never shared with him, her husband? An interesting line Gene says, “We exist without them, you know?” They do, but differently. Could his wife and Ed have been in love? Then there is his child Dary, who couldn’t be any more different from Gene if she tried. She is trying to be present for her father after the shocking loss of her mother, but it’s obvious from the start that her life is far more liberal than he can stomach. There is an ocean of distance within their relationship. Maybe he has oppressed her, does it in small doses with his unfiltered comments and questions. Strange to have a child so different from you, a child who was more her mother’s in some ways. Maybe her irritation, hurt, anger is tied in some way to never expecting to lose her mother, the parent she always chose. Their relationship has been strained from the start but it was during college he believes the real loss occurred. What happened? He doesn’t truly know his daughter’s inner life, which is interesting to note he is wondering if what he knew about the ‘internal life’ of his own wife and their marriage is genuine. How much changes, within in own hearts, if the big things in our lives are other than what we believed? Does love feel any different, is it diminished, in the end, does it alter if someone loved less? More?
It’s a sort of torture to live backwards, to try to come to knowledge when your beloved is no longer there to ask, confirm or deny whatever it is one is torturing themselves over. It’s also just as painful to try to change a relationship with your child when your wife is no longer there and you feel like a stand in. He is missing so much about Dary, when she is right is right there, as far from him as his dead wife. There is a cowardice in routine with our loved ones, in not risking breaking out of our set character.
Then there is Adele, hired to help him out so Dary can get back to her ‘self-serving’ life. He has always been sore about her having a donor to have her child Annie. Is it because it hurts him to think his daughter feels a father is ‘arbitrary’ and therefore, it means he didn’t matter to Dary either? Is Adele another chance to belong to someone again, so he won’t be drifting forever, someone who will touch him, be his constant companion as Maida once was.
Grief occupies more than it’s share of space in this novel. If Gene doesn’t understand the heart of women, particularly those he should be closest too, it’s more that he doesn’t really understand himself. His life feels like a blink, everything happened so fast, unexpectedly. Often the reality of life, of children, is nothing like you envisioned. Having a child who upsets everything he feels is solid and moral about the world, loving a woman who may have only shown her core to another, even if there was nothing sexual, this was not the life he thought he would own. Illness that steals in, he isn’t really ready, but we never are. He spends a lot of time torturing himself, wondering if he was conspired against by his wife and best friend Ed, his entire life! If his child is just another betrayal. I don’t know that Gene ever gets the answers, maybe being blind to the serious stuff is how he prefered to live. Why didn’t he ever have these deep conversations, aiming loaded pressing questions her way? Maybe there was nothing to hide, and it’s just his own mind eating itself. God willing this won’t be old age for all of us, wondering what was real, true. I have to say, at least for men my father’s age, I think in many families women have always carried the relationships and the many men would be unsure of their footing if their wife died first (in relation to the children, fully grown or not). I don’t know if it’s generational, and I don’t mean to discredit men and say they aren’t close to their children, but in many cases it’s mostly been on a woman’s shoulders to reach the depths of their children’s core, to understand and track their inner-life. Men sometimes find themselves lost at sea, whether relationships are close or strained, when they are widowed. Surely not true of every family now, but times were different when I was growing up. On top of losing his wife, he has to confront the reality that he and his daughter are strangers to each other.
A quiet, slow read about being forced to wake up in your own life, when your partner is no longer there to steer it.
Publication Date: June 19, 2018
Little, Brown and Company