Tuesday, September 8, 2015

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Title:  This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!
Author:  Jonathan Evison
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2015. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1616202610 / 978-1616202613

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Opening Sentence:  "Here you come, Harriet Nathan, tiny face pinched, eyes squinting fiercely against the glare of surgical lamps, at a newly renovated Swedish hospital, high on Seattle's First Hill."

Favorite Quote:  "If we've learned one thing ... we've learned this:  While the days unfold, one after the other, and the numbers all move in one direction, our lives are not linear, Harriet. We are the sum of moments and reflections, actions and decisions, triumphs, failures, and yearnings, all of it held together, inexplicably, miraculously, really, by memory and association."

Harriet Chance is seventy-eight years old and being visited by the ghost of her dead husband Bernard. Bernard is breaking all the rules of the afterlife and coming back to Harriet. This is Harriet's life - from age zero to age seventy-eight and with plenty of stops in between.

In one of the chapters towards the beginning, the book describes its journey. "Yes, yes, we're all over the place again, pinballing across the decades, slinging and bumping our way through the days of your life, seemingly at random ... But look a little closer, Harriet, and you'll see there's a method to the madness, a logic to the game."

This pinball approach takes the reader on a journey through Harriet's entire life. The narrative style of this book unique, and it works. It is a first person plural narrative. "We" are telling Harriet's story. "We" have all the knowledge of Harriet's life as Harriet herself would. At times, it's as if "we" show Harriet her own life and speak to her about the choices she makes, doesn't make, could have made, should have made, and so on.

The "we" is never identified, but sometimes it has elements of the collective voice of a Greek chorus. Of course, the book title seems a direct reference to the old TV show This is Your Life, which sought to surprise a guest with an audience looking on. (If you've ever seen that show or clips from it, you read the title as it sounds in that show, right? I know I did.)

In essence, this book tells the story of Harriet's life to the reader as audience; Harriet and the reader audience get quite a few surprises along the way. Harriet's story, like most of our own stories, is one of forks in the road, some of her choosing and some thrust upon her. Childhood experiences, jobs, careers, marriage, motherhood, love, loss, death, betrayal.

Without a spoiler, I will say I did not care for the events where the book ends up for an explanation of some of Harriet's choices. I find it unnecessary and not truly an explanation for Harriet's life. Her life may have gone the exact same direction without those events. For me, those events bring Harriet a little further away from someone I can completely relate with. (That is a cryptic comment, but I don't do spoilers so that's the best I can do.)

In present time, at age seventy-eight, Harriet is also dealing with her own ailments, her best friend in a  nursing home, her two children each with their own problems, and, of course, the ghost of her dead husband. Did I mention that people think she's a little crazy because she is certain that her dead husband is still with her? Oh, and add to that the fact that Harriet decides to go on an Alaskan cruise. She discovers that her husband had booked this trip for two, and she decides to go on without him.

In other words, this book has its moments of humor, but underlying that is a retrospective seriousness about Harriet reflecting on who she is and how she got to this point in her life. The choices made all seem the right one at the time they were made, but is this where she was meant to be? Her question is one that many people ponder at times in their lives.

Harriet is a charming, sympathetic main character. Even more importantly, Harriet is human, with eccentricities and faults of her own, and with a mixed-up, messy life like most of ours.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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