Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Literally the Best Reviews: This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance -- Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books
308 Pages

Does anyone remember the old Ralph Edwards’ show, “This Is Your Life?” Popular back in the 1950s, the show would bring a contestant on and surprise them with family and friends that had an impact on their lives. Surprise visits from nearly forgotten friends brought back memories of earlier days in their history. This is Your Life, Harriet Chance, by Jonathan Evison, neatly follows that reality show, mixing in events from Harriet’s early life with the events taking place in modern times.

Harriet Chance’s husband has died. After being married to Bernard for fifty-five years, 78-year-old Harriet decides that maybe it’s time to live a little. When she is surprised to learn her late husband sprang for an Alaskan cruise, Harriet opts to fulfill what she believes are his wishes, and goes on the cruise. It’s on this cruise that Harriet has flashbacks to her old life, and learns dark secrets about her husband. At the same time, she is reminded of her own secrets and has to face those truths with her estranged daughter. The sudden appearance of the ghost of her recently departed husband adds to the mix of hilarity and solemnity that ensues.

Harriet’s family thinks she is too old to be going alone on the cruise. When her best friend backs out of the trip, Harriet decides to soldier on in spite of what her children think. To her chagrin, her daughter, Caroline, invites herself to accompany her mother. The two have never been close, and this trip strains an already strained relationship, at least at the beginning. As their time aboard the ship moves forward, they slowly come to a mutual understanding of each other.

Intermixed with Harriet’s modern adventures are snippets of her past, narrated by an all-knowing persona. These snippets have no discernible timeline to them, but they adroitly build a backstory into Harriet’s life. This is the tie-in with the old television show, “This is Your Life.” Other reviewers have decried this part of the book, not being able to wrap their heads around the jumbled timeline. For me, they were the best parts of the story. Rather than a traditional, linear backstory slowly revealed throughout the book, we are given glimpses that seem to create a deeper and richer history for our main character.

Harriet’s mistakes are brought to the forefront in this novel. As each of these faults are revealed, the ghost of Bernard appears to try to help her. At least, from my point of view, it appears that’s what he’s doing. The seemingly idyllic life of Harriet and Bernard is shown under the stark lights of reality. Every blemish and hiccup shines blindingly as they’re unearthed. The secrets that are finally revealed will surprise the readers. It is well worth the wait.

Jonathan Evison has written a look at life that is simultaneously joyful and sad. Harriet Chance has many regrets in life, but she never really second guesses her choices. The minute she does, she realizes all that she would have missed out on if things were different. She goes through those moments of agonizing over decisions, but realizes that the person she has become is a cumulative collection of each of those decisions. Evison builds a character that we love through her flaws. None of those flaws are outrageous enough to suspend belief. Each facet of her life is written to create a vibrant and realistic character, and the reader empathizes with her.

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance is written from two distinct points of view. From Harriet we learn about her present-day life, while we look back at her early years through the narration of an unseen television host. This omniscient narrator gives us all the details we need to know about how Harriet became the Harriet of today. Each point of view is distinct and easily recognizable. Evison has given us two voices for the same character. It’s wonderfully woven throughout the book.

This was truly an enjoyable book. Once I began, I could not put it down. Each glimpse into the past pulled me deeper into the life of Harriet Chance. It felt at times that I was part of the story, as an audience member waiting for the big reveal. As any reader can tell you, when you feel invested in the characters and plot as much as this, you’ve found yourself a very well written book. I will definitely be checking out other works by Jonathan Evison.

Craig Bacon has made a couple questionable decisions over the year, but he regrets nothing.

Next Week: The Lost Book of Moses -- Chanan Tigay