Ok, so if you’re still reading after that post title, I give you credit. But I really just couldn’t resist. I’ve read two books this week that provide us with a glimpse of what might happen to us after death–at least for a short time. Both novels see the dead lingering for a bit, maybe wrapping up loose ends or simply waiting for what might come next.
The Beginner’s Goodbye
Aaron Woolcott had just lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident: an enormous oak tree fell on their house,
crushing her and destroying the better part of his world. He is a publisher at a small vanity press; she, a doctor. They met when Aaron was researching for one of his titles–The Beginner’s Cancer–and was immediately smitten by the self-sufficient, frumpy Dr. Rosales. Anne Tyler gives us yet another peek into the lives of folks who fumble their way through life, pushing through a tangle of frailty and foible to somehow find their way to love.
So we have their courtship, their matter-of-fact marriage, Dorothy’s untimely death. And then we have her return. Dorothy stands outside their home, watching repairs; she sits in the alley outside Aaron’s office, looking up at his window; she walks alongside him on his way to lunch at the corner cafe. Others turn away when they see the two approaching, or they avert their eyes and duck past quickly–uncomfortable, pretending she isn’t there. But is she? She spoke only to Aaron and only a few times, but it was enough. Enough for Aaron to make sense of what their marriage was missing. And what they had.
Tyler’s other characters are just as flawed: Gil, the contractor , a recovering alcoholic, who repairs Aaron’s house; Aaron’s sister Nandina, still in her thirties and seeming to will herself into spinsterhood with the housecoats she dons after work; the staff at Woolcott Publishing, especially Peggy, the office House Mother who is a-flounce with ruffles and lace and curls. Although maybe not as fuzzy-around-the-edges as Tyler’s earlier characters (who can forget Macon Leary from Accidental Tourist?) I adored them all–because, in the end, Tyler understands we are all of us pushing through our own tangles. And some of us–in what might be our finest moments–do find love.
The Uninvited Guests
In a Downton-ish Abbey time and place, Emerald looks forward to celebrating her birthday with a grand dinner, but only a few guests. Her family, of course (more on them later), a neighbor who, although he is a farmer, just might be a prospective suitor, and her childhood friends Patience and Ernest Sutton. What she gets is a houseful of survivors from a late-night railway crash–a few dozen (lower class all) huddle together, waiting for a Railway representative to transport them home.
And as period pieces often are, this is a comedy of manners. The Torringtons, funds rapidly failing, their privileged life falling to ruin, maintain their dignity by looking down at others–in this case, the survivors of that railway crash. The passengers are herded (there’s not other word for it) into the morning room, the fire lit, the door shut, and just as quickly, forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind Except more keep arriving and after hours of isolation, start to roam through the house. The guests are tired. They’re hungry. They are restless.
One guest, however, joins Emerald’s party, much to the dismay of her mother Charlotte, who seems to know the man, one Charlie Traversham-Beechers. Bawdy and crass,
Treaverish-Beacon Traversham-Beechers brings all sorts of mischief with him. The gentleman drink too much and wave cigars about at the table; the conversation is decidedly not posh; the women are insulted. And when a party game of Hinds and Hounds turns malicious, terrible family secrets are revealed.
And all the while there are the guests, who, increasingly, will not be contained. They appear on the landing; they stand in the hall–and then they don’t. Who are these passengers and where are they going? Ah! Their drab colors, sallow faces, the shivers, the drafts … Author Sadie Jones leaves a crumb trail of clues along the way–a trail that is delicious to follow and even more intriguing to think about.
And so just what exactly does await us? I’m hoping I won’t know for a while yet–which is why I’ve loved Peony in Love and If I Stay and Mrs. Perrigrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. They give me pause for thought. I’d like to think I’ll be back–hopefully not as empty as Jones’s wandering souls or as peevish as Aaron’s Dorothy. Perhaps just trailing behind my loved ones, hitching a ride as I hold loosely to their shoulders, not a hungry ghost like Peony, but one more satisfied–content to be close to, but not necessarily with, the ones I love.