I’m warning you now, spoilers. There are spoilers in this post. Instead of a typical review, this is more of a book discussion, because this book really messed with my head and it doesn’t feel like enough to just talk about the plot and move merrily on.
Here’s the setup: Harriet,78, has just received a gift from her husband Bernard: two tickets he won at auction to go on an Alaskan cruise. Thing is, Bernard died last year, after more than a year of Harriet nursing him through Alzheimer’s. Harriet’s only just found out about the tickets (Bernard bid on them quite a while ago)as they are due to expire soon if she doesn’t use them. Harriet decides to go, and asks her best friend of many years, Mildred, to accompany her. At the last minute, Mildred pulls out but won’t explain why, and sends Harriet a letter not to be opened until she is on the cruise ship.
Guess what’s in the letter? Four out of five people I told about this book guessed correctly just from that setup–that Mildred had an affair with Bernard. Did you guess? Please tell me in the comments if you guessed right or not, because I’m really wondering how obvious it is. I sort of guessed as I was reading the book but I was hoping I was wrong. Alas.
First of all, Mildred, you absolute beast! How could you do that to your best friend? Obviously, telling Harriet wasn’t for Harriet’s benefit, although Mildred has deluded herself into thinking that it was. Really, it’s her own guilt she wants to assuage, and she wants to share the burden of knowing the truth. Selfish, selfish, selfish. As we learn through flashbacks, Mildred was having an affair with Bernard before she ever met Harriet, and seems to have purposely become friends with Harriet out of a sense of guilt for the affair. So the value, the truth of that whole friendship, is thrown into question for Harriet with this letter.
Evison’s chapters mostly switch back and forth between the linear narrative of now (preparing for the cruise, being on the cruise, etc.) told in third-person, and flashbacks to significant moments (especially several with a creepy uncle who wasn’t really an uncle) in Harriet’s life, told in a confronting second person, addressing Harriet. These second-person chapters use the frame of having a narrator choose what she reminisces about, not unlike in the old game show “This is Your Life.” But this atypical second-person narrator is not just a gimmick: it argues for a higher power in charge of shaping the meaning of Harriet’s life.
The chapters in which Bernard’s afterlife so far is a kind of limbo where he is breaking the rules (again) by appearing to Harriet to try to help her get through this difficult time more obviously frame the story in terms of a higher power in charge. The irony is that in trying to help, Bernard is risking being able to meet up with Harriet in the afterlife; although it’s not super clear where he’s headed (thumbs up or thumbs down), his handler makes it clear that he still has something to lose. This in itself is a fascinating idea, that we would still have free will in the waiting room directing us to heaven or hell, and be able to make choices that would change where we were bound, and moreover, that people would still make choices they knew would send them to hell.
It’s hard to know what to make of Bernard. Is he just a fuck-up? His visits to Harriet are backfiring, making their grown children question Harriet’s sanity when they catch her seemingly talking to herself, but he doesn’t seem to care. Is his behavior motivated by love for Harriet, or, like Mildred, by guilt? Of course there is no explanation that will justify Bernard’s affair, but his conversations with Harriet are brief and unilluminating.
Even though Evison seems to set up the reader to believe in a higher power shaping Harriet’s life, his tone works against taking any of it seriously, especially in his game-show host persona: “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.” He seems to tease her that there is “a method to the madness,” but never delivers. Does Evison feel obligated to play to the jadedness of the prevailing culture? His game-show narrator is so wittily unsympathetic to Harriet’s tradgedies and disappointments, that I wonder if he is, in fact, malevolent. When Harriet dies at the end, the novel feels unresolved. She never gets to confront either Bernard or Mildred. Not that confronting them would have resolved everything. But allowing her only the confines of her own mind in which to battle it out with them seemed cruel.
If This is Your Life, Harriet Chance embodies the new vision of our overseers from above, I’ll stick with the voiceovers in It’s A Wonderful Life, thanks. If you read this book, I’d be really eager to hear what you thought of it! It depressed me for weeks! Thanks.