Occasionally I receive offers of book sample copies, with requests to review. As you can tell, I don’t respond terribly often. But this book, Black Chokeberry, by Martha Nelson, seemed apropos to our discussions.
It’s the story of three not-young women, and what transpires when one of them moves home to the small town of Oswego, New York.
Frances, the oldest of the three, is widowed. Ruby has never married. Ellen, who moves home, does so after a long marriage ends in divorce. So this is not a story about midlife women and men. Nor is it a story, by the way, about women out conquering the world. Let’s all note that we do know women over 50 often have a life of both men and jobs. But this is not that story. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
Fairly early in the novel, one of the women is injured in an accident. They all wind up moving in together. A dog is involved. That’s pretty much it - at least it’s pretty much the plot.
Because this is one of those books with more to it. Black Chokeberry is to the mysteries of single women over 50 as Lena Dunham’s “Girls” is to the secret life of 20-somethings. It’s a very closely observed, very small world, one which provokes some discomfort. This, from Ellen.
It all changed when she hit her fiftieth birthday. Deeply affected by the hard reality that she was in the final phase of her life, with only thirty more years of living if she were really lucky, Ellen had made a scared pledge to herself on that milestone birthday: only the best undersewar and beautifully made soft T-shirts from now on….
Sitting now on the edge of the bed in her tiny Oswego house, she reached into the nightstand for a Twix bar, unwrapped it quickly, snapped the twin bars in half, and popped one into her mouth, not caring that she had just brushed her teeth.
Such a small detail, the toothpaste. Such an indicator of personal distress, and one that made me uncomfortable. I welcome discomfort in art. The book is full of those small details that rarely make it into fiction, the embarrassing personal habits we develop when living alone, the anxieties, the quirks.
It’s also full of grace – of the sort that develops when people take care of each other.
I didn’t like everything, mind you. Too many brand names, for one. I prefer my literature remain in a non-pop-culture land, one which although it may reference a date, floats in fictional time. And the metaphor behind the book’s title is horribly overt. It’s so easy to use gardens as a crutch to meaning. Let’s leave that to Voltaire, shall we? But really, it’s an oddly Gothic little novel, which scratches along the sandy bottom of character and place very well, and keeps one good company, in all kinds of places.
For those of you with dreams of fiction – which I can’t write to save my life – it’s worth noting that Ms. Nelson has gray hair. That this is her first novel, and she is married with two dogs and a cat. All sorts of worlds are worth a close analysis.