This thoughtful and poignant novel sneaks quietly into your affections until, at the end, you feel awed by the artistic merit of the author, and by his portrayal of endless love and longing coupled with boundless betrayal and grief.
I was just knocked out by this book, although it was one in which I didn’t like many of the protagonists (usually enough to sour my interest in a story). Even with the perspective afforded by going back and forth in time, Judith Toomey is unlikable both as a sneering, self-absorbed teenager and a still self-absorbed and cynical adult – until the last section that is, when the revival of her love for what is real transforms her into someone who finally learns how to give, in time to see the shocking sorrow that results from a broken heart.
Judith, at age 44, is living the life she thought she wanted, working on movies in L.A. and married to a banker, Malcolm Whitman, whom she met at Stanford. Judith and Malcolm both work late, and their only daughter Camilla is dour and rebellious. Moreover, Malcolm is probably having an affair with his assistant. Judith is so disconnected from her family though, that she doesn’t really seem to care, and retreats into memories of her youth in Nebraska when she was swept away by her first love, a wonderful character named Willy Blunt.
Willy is really the only likable character in the book, but oh, how likable he is! With his soft gaze and tender consideration, he truly seems to understand how to love. And how to live: when Judith first encounters him and his seeming unflagging good cheer, the author writes:
“What Judith thought was that the roofer was probably a prime example of somebody who hadn’t given his life enough thought to know how unhappily he ought to view it. ‘Maybe he’s a simpleton,’ she said.”
The concept of marriage takes a huge hit in this book, which is unexpected, since the enduring gift that love provides does not.
It begins with Judith’s mother, whose own marriage disintegrated and Judith’s father moved away to Nebraska. Judith’s mother says to her:
“‘You know what marriage is like?’ ‘It’s like picking the place you’re going to live for the next fifty years by using a wall map, a blindfold, and what you really, truly, deeply believe is your lucky dart.’
Sullenly Judith said, ‘I don’t believe I have a lucky dart,’ and her mother cast an unhappy smile her way and said, ‘You will, though.’”
And at one point Willy tells Judith about a broken down mare he had:
“Couldn’t ride it, except maybe to walk it around the corral. You could feed it and brush it and water it was all. Sometimes I’ve thought that’s what most marriages get to. A horse you still care a little bit about but cannot any longer ride.”
Couldn’t you just cry over that? Likewise when Willy says to Judith:
“There really isn’t anything of importance except maybe who gets handed your heart and what they do with it.”
“We’re just small, Judy. All of us, even though we do stuff every day of the week to distract ourselves from the fact, it’s still true. We’re just little and small and maybe if we have some backbone we do a few things worth doing and then we’re gone.”
Willy always had the backbone. And finally, finally, Judith knows what to do with the heart she has been given.
The stunning ending includes an unforgettable scene that manages to recapitulate and encapsulate the entire story into one transcendent moment.
Evaluation: I stayed up all night to finish this book. The beautifully meditative descriptions of nature’s immediacy and grandeur in Nebraska infuse the book with an almost spiritual quality. And the juxtaposition of a sterile and incomplete existence with one that is fulfilling will challenge your notions about a well-settled life. But it is the depiction of love that will sweep you off your feet, as the author illuminates the glimmering facets of tenderness that can last a lifetime. Highly recommended!
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2011