Still a bully: This Is Your Life Harriet Chance (review)

This Is Your Life Harriet Chance (NetGalley)
by Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books

Harriet Chance sits in Father Mullinix’s study. Her husband Bernard, dead for two years, has been showing up unannounced: leaving his slippers next to hers, setting out a can of WD-40 so she could Harriet Chancesilence a hinge, showing up unannounced at the grocery store complaining.

What’s a widow to do when her dead husband still isn’t silent, even from the grave? What kind of a husband does this, anyway? A bully, that’s who. Bernard was–apparently still is–a bully.

And for his part, Bernard Chance is soundly taken to task by heaven’s chief transitional officer for intruding in her affairs.  Apparently, it was made very clear during orientation (and it’s repeated in the manual in Section One) that Candidates are not to return under any circumstances. Or else. Bernard’s motives seem to be pure–he’s just out to spare Harriet from learning things that will hurt her.

Father is concerned. Her son Skip (a successful businessman–or is he?) is concerned. Even daughter Caroline, an alcoholic who has given her parents a pretty wide berth since her recovery, is concerned.

And then there’s the matter of the cruise. Harriet recieved a call from the Nitterhouse Foundation. Seems that Bernard had bid and won a gift basket at a silent auction, but never picked it up. His cruise to Alaska would expire in a matter of months–would Mrs. Chance please come redeem her gift soon?

Quick as you can settle into a game of shuffleboard on the atrium deck, Harriet is off to Alaska. By herself because best friend Mildred Honeycutt has ditched her. And sent that AA daughter of Harriet’s (Surprise, Mom!) instead.

The book’s blurb sounded madcap. What’s not to like about a visiting ghost-husband who’s still a grumpy gus? How can I not be charmed by an unexpected (and quite lavish) mother-daughter getaway? Harriet mu st be a sweet old lady finally getting hers.

Except that life isn’t really all sweetness and light, now, is it?

Author Jonathon Evison peels off the layers of Harriet’s solidly built world slowly and painfully. There’s that first “incident” with Charlie Fitzsimmons on the boat when she was nine. Caroline’s palpable struggle to stay sober. Harriet’s own drinking. The devasting story of Bernard’s last days. His abuse bullying. And the awful truth about the betrayal of her very best friend.

For some reason I was pleasantly surprised that the novel I chose for a bit of light reading turned out to be far heavier than I sometimes wanted. This Is Your Life Harriet Chance was by turns raw and tender, whimsical and nostalgic.

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