The Season of Second Chances
By Diane Meier (Henry Holt & Co.; pages; $25.00)
Books for women have a storied history. From Jane Austen, to Georgette Heyer, to countless supermarket novels with heroines named Arabella, or, on another track, from Jane Austen, (the metaphorical head of this Amazon) to Erica Jong, with a mystical detour through Alice Hoffman, and on to a grittier Barbara Kingsolver. By women’s books I don’t mean books with heroines, per se. Some of the great books of the last couple of years, Home and Olive Kitteridge to mention a couple, are not what I call women’s books, despite their heroines. A genuine women’s book will usually involve a romantic exploration of life stages, courtship, marriage, children, personal growth. Often a lot of discussion about what gets worn. Occasionally a certain world-weary and sarcastic tone, occasionally a lot of adjectives.
While women may read books for men, men are unlikely to return the favor. Perhaps women’s lives and our concerns are the advanced course. I don’t know. The books of Richard Ford, John Updike, and even Chang-Rae Lee traverse the phases of life with a nagging or profound sense of angst, and an invisible redemption, or none. Even Coetzee’s book, Disgrace, which I am tempted to nominate as the Best Novel Since Bleak House, follows the men’s book pattern.
When men’s novels degrade to supermarket status, usually something blows up. When women’s novels degrade to supermarket status, someone chooses the wrong man. I love supermarket novels. I love high art. The realm in between is very hard to navigate.
Enter Joy Harkness, the heroine of The Season of Second Chances. Joy is a single woman, no longer in her twenties. As the story opens, she is teaching English Literature at Columbia University, not terribly happily. She has acquaintances, but perhaps no real friends. Has been married, but even her divorce engendered little feeling. Then comes an offer to move to Amherst College, to work with a very well-known woman professor in her field, to help develop a new, cross-disciplinary approach to the humanities. She accepts, moves to Massachusetts, buys a house, and begins to engage in the community.
Were Second Chances a simple, supermarket read, Joy would meet one man who breaks her heart, and a second man who saves her, survive danger, get married, wear purple. Along the way we’d hear from the smart-mouth girlfriend. Sass, or long red curls, would trump all. However, Diane Meier has other ideas. Second Chances is after a portrayal of gradual emotional growth, and the impact of life uniquely lived.
Upon arrival in Amherst, Joy makes friends, with Donna Fortunata, her real estate agent, with Josie Sullivan, a fellow professor, and with Fran, her secretary. Joy also meets men. The first set of which comes in threes. Dreadful threes. They are known by a nickname that says it all.
Fran smiled and announced at lunch that I was “new meat for the Coyotes,” and Josie seemed to get a real kick out of the situation, as she described what I was likely to find. While there certainly were others, she explained, these three fellows traveled as a pack.
A comical pack at that.
Paul Cavanaugh’s balding hair had most likely been red when younger but was now also a grayish beige-brown and frizzy with a rough, pot-scrubber texture. To complete the picture, he licked his wet and very red lips incessantly, like a Coyote playing the Wolf while considering the relative merits of tender Riding Hood or her crispy grandmother. If I’m to be anyone in this story, I thought, I’d better be the Woodsman.
However, the Coyotes are just incidental clowns on Joy’s stage. The story takes its direction from Joy’s longer relationship with the house she remodels, her contractor, and the lives and dramas of the families she comes to know.
Her house is described in loving detail. Home decor aficianados, listen up.
The trees lost their leaves, and some days found the Amherst sky beginning to take on that cold, bone-white pallor of New England winters. But each time I turned onto my street, the apricot house drew me down the block…the walls above the chair rail a color between cream and yellow, a kind of manila, vanilla, banana-cream-pie color. The ceiling was tinted a robin’s egg blue.
The house’s renaissance is due in large part to Teddy Hennessy, a younger man who Joy hires to fix up her old house. Literally and figuratively. They fall in love.
Standing in the dim light of the porch was a hulking figure who looked like an overgrown child. He wore a baseball cap, shorts, and a psychedelic T-shirt that said, EAT, DRINK AND SEE JERRY.
The story of Joy’s relationships ebbs and flows. The simple pleasures of ritual and companionship. Her job makes her happy. Then, as Joy appears to be slowly coming out of her stunned emotional silence, her friend Donna is attacked by an ex-husband, so fiercely that Donna has to spend weeks in the hospital. Joy must help the community she has joined to care for Donna’s two daughters. However,
It was only midday on Monday that I realized I was the only one of the four adults who had made no concession to the crisis beyond last night.
Joy grows. Slowly. Reluctantly. Nothing overnight. The plot is somewhat simplistic; the book itself is not. Everything of import happens inside the character. And to her clothing. Let me say here and now. It will dawn on you at some point in your reading that this is a story, in part, about our Style Archetypes. Sturdy Gal turns Artsy Cousin. The dramatic crux of Second Chances is mirrored in a dressing room episode. With clothing.
When we first meet Joy, she says of herself.
I don’t like clothes that make too much of a statement…I just want clothes I don’t have to worry about, and most of the time I seem to manage with a good pair of pants, a tailored shirt and a jacket or cardigan sweater.
At the climactic moment, when the time comes to shop for the wedding of an old Columbia colleague, Joy’s new mentor takes her on a pilgrimage.
Still, hair-washed, dried and braided-and the rest of me squeaky clean, and dressed in a pair of navy flannel slacks, blue oxford shirt and navy cardigan, I was ready for Bernadette; ready for our discussion about Shakespeare, and our plans for Henry James and Edith Wharton, and even ready, I hoped, for shopping in Vermont.
When they arrive, the transformation is rapid. And colorful.
As I stood on the hushed floor of the Armani store, somber, dim and concrete as any place of meditation, surrounded by yards and yards of sleeves, shirts and slacks in gray and taupe, beige and sand, and stone and sage and khaki, I must have looked as helpless as I felt.
Joy walks in navy, walks out sage green. She’s heading up the sartorial Amazon, Artsy Cousin at last. Teddy may not endure. The story may not end with a wedding, at least not Joy’s. Nobody may dance around a maypole. And yet, something is happening.
If I had known the territories would be so vast, if I’d understood they were so deep and internal as to be mythically subterranean, would I have made this journey?…This question, which suggests I had an element of will or control in the events, flatters me. As I see it, I didn’t do much.
Second Chances treads the conventional territory of women’s novels. It’s fun to read about men who are foolish, Armani fabrics, and cream wainscoting. The plot is somewhat transparent as an engine for growth, the discussions of teaching and curriculum creaky. But Meier’s fine hand with Joy Harkness’ voice is remarkable. Ms. Meier give us someone who has ceased to feel, all the while conveying warmth and humanity. No literary pyrotechnics, but a remarkably sustained, quiet, intelligent, voice that rings true. It carries us through. We read Second Chances avidly, with enormous fondness for the heroine and a growing sense of understanding for her path.
*With thanks to Leah Paulos, who found me, wrote me, asked if I’d be interested in reviewing the book, and sent me an advance reader’s edition. Very exciting. My policy on reviews is that I will only post if I can in honesty recommend the book to you all. Because that’s what my mother would do.