Life is made up of long stretches of unmemorable periods, interspersed with memories of such clarity that those memories seem to define us. It is these memories that feature in Jonathan Evison’s novel, “This is your life, Harriet Chance!“.
Harriet is seventy-eight years of age. She lost her husband recently and is finding widowhood daunting, though somewhat of a relief as she was the sole caregiver of Bernard, who had Alzheimer’s.
The novel is comprised of myriad flashbacks that examine different stages in Harriet’s life. Her childhood (she was very quiet), her adolescence, her young adulthood. Harriet Nathan, as she was then, was the daughter of a prominent attorney and local dignitary.
As a young woman she had a career as a legal assistant – a job that she was very proficient at, and that she enjoyed immensely. It is while working that she meets her future husband, Bernard Chance in 1957. Bernard, reliable, steady, and predictable as they come. They go on to have two children, a boy and a girl. The girl coming along at a time when Harriet has reentered the work force and is filled with ambition. Poor timing… in more ways than one. And perhaps her attitude toward Caroline is to blame for her daughter’s less than stellar life choices, her unhappiness and her disillusionment with her life.
The story tells of Harriet’s lifelong friend, Mildred. A friend who was always there for her when she needed to vent her most private thoughts and frustrations. Another way Harriet ‘vents’ is through the bottom of a wine glass.
Harriet’s life is put under a microscope and is at times found wanting. She reflects on all the slights, regrets, and miscommunications of her past. The unrealized dreams and expectations. The ‘what-ifs‘.
“At some point, you just get tired of hanging on.
All those memories.
All that junk.”
But life hasn’t been all bad. Harriet loves her house, a cedar ‘one-of-a-kind’ with views of the North Olympics.
It is with no little trepidation that Harriet finds that her late husband has won a trip for two for an Alaskan cruise. She asks her friend Mildred to accompany her, as the thought of travelling alone is daunting. Mildred – who lives in a nursing home – agrees, only to back out at the last minute. Against her over-protective son’s wishes, Harriet sets out on the trip alone.
Her trip gave me opportunity to laugh with Harriet (never laughing at her), commiserate with her failing physical stamina, and reel from unexpected shocks she sustains while aboard. She is a ‘tough old bird’. But is she tough enough?
Though I’m not as old as Harriet Chance, many passages in the book resonated with me. A bittersweet novel with writing that was honest and true. I enjoyed Harriet’s company. I’m sorry she is no longer in my life. Highly recommended!
I was pleased to see that “This is your life, Harriet Chance” is soon to made into a movie! (Focus Features) I was picturing who would play the parts in such a movie the entire time I was reading it.
I was provided a free digital copy of the novel by Algonquin Books via NetGalley. I was only to happy to write this review.
This would be a great choice for a book club. The author has generously provided some questions for discussion in this Reader’s Guide.
Jonathan Evison is an American writer best known for his novels All About Lulu, West of Here, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving and This is Your Life Harriet Chance! His work is often distinguished by its emotional resonance and offbeat humor.