One of the basic rules about telling stories, or at least one of the rules I agree with, is that somehow, in the course of the story, the main character has to change. Not in any particular way or direction, but the story itself has to work on the main characters in some observable way. Cathleen Schine took a main character I didn’t like much — Helen, 42, divorced, the owner of a bookstore in a small New England town — and shook her up, and I liked the result.
This is a novel about a selfish, amusing, charming woman who is side-swiped by an inappropriate love affair with a man much younger than she is — someone she should be able to control, because she does that so well. Things get away from her. It’s gratifying to watch.
It all starts because she comes across an anonymous love letter which upsets her view of her world and paves the way for Johnny. Schine does an interesting job with Johnny; he’s young, but not shallow; he’s interesting but not quirky. Schine is just plain good when it comes to quick, vivid characterization. Here’s Helen’s mother:
“Lilian was severe and short-tempered with a throaty voice. She smoked in the bath. When Helen was growing up, her mother treated her like an adult who, for reasons no one cared to go into, was too small to reach the light switches. Helen trailed around after her mother in a soft haze of half understanding. Adult conversations, thrilling and somehow important, surrounded her, as indecipherable and compelling as new art. Lilian, propped against the pillows, would gossip mercilessly and good-humoredly into the telephone. Lolling on the bed, at the foot like a lapdog, Helen listened contentedly to her mother’s side of the conversation.”
The only problem I had with this novel, which is witty and wise and sharply observed, is that the pacing seemed very slightly off once or twice. Otherwise it’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a good long while, and thus, a success.