'This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance' seeks to account for a mother's unhappiness

The story of a doomed cruise provides bittersweet laughs and an opportunity for the mother at its helm to examine her marriage, daughter, and self-image.

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance By Jonathan Evison Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 304 pp.

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance is Jonathan Evison’s fourth novel, and its dedication, “For Mom,” goes a long way toward capturing its essence. Harriet Chance, née Nathan, is a mom in spades, probably not Evison’s mom but an American classic of yesteryear: Born in 1936, Harriet grows into the very model of the “second sex,” her condition aggravated by a hypercritical mother and a later, secret trouble. We get to know her at age 78, now looking back on her life from the very moment of birth through years of repression and passivity.

After high school, Harriet worked in a law office, embracing the title “Ms.,” just beginning to make its way into enlightened parlance. She dreamed of advancement, even of becoming a lawyer herself, but it all came to naught when she fell pregnant and had to get married; for those were the days. Bernard, her husband – a janitor when she meets him, later a plant manager at a bearings manufacturer – was an ex-Marine, “a man who [knew] a thing or two about duty. About commitment and sacrifice, plumbing and electricity.” He was also uncommunicative and unappreciative of Harriet. It was he who made the “mutual” decisions, and his idea of a good time was driving to the landfill on Sundays with his young son, to sit in the car eating “BurgerMeister fries, marveling at the perfectly good things people throw away.” Powerless, unfulfilled, desperate, Harriet began to tipple her way through the tedious days as mother and domestic factotum. This we learn gradually.

Now a recent widow, she is confronting the problem that while her husband is dead, he’s still around. He’s a ghost but as down-to-earth as he ever was: eating corned beef, leaving the WD-40 out for the squeaking dishwasher door, and, soon enough, protesting against the abuse of ball bearings. It turns out that he had won a cruise for two to Alaska in a raffle two years ago, the offer about to expire, and Harriet ends up going on her own, taking Bernard’s ashes with her in a yoghurt container with a plan to scatter them in Glacier Bay. But she’s not on her own for long: Bernard’s shade shows up. He’s got something to tell Harriet, even though it’s against postmortem regulations; in fact, Bernard’s re-entry into human affairs is jeopardizing his afterlife – the rules, we learn, are pretty strict. And then Harriet’s estranged daughter, Caroline, appears on the scene, explaining that she and her brother felt Harriet couldn’t manage the trip alone.

Having got these plot devices wound up and ticking, and having engaged in a number of comic set pieces – drunken birthday-cake baking, old person holding up a checkout line with the coupon maneuver, getting Bernard’s ashes through security, sloshed and unruly behavior in the ship’s piano lounge – the novel darkens. We learn of Bernard’s descent into Alzheimer’s and Harriet’s grueling, soul-crushing tribulations as his caregiver. These passages are both sad and mordantly funny: Bernard is angry and incontinent, and his “conversation” is reduced to such repeated observations as: “Speed will kill a bearing faster than an increased load.” “You wanna prevent rust? Vinegar.” Secrets are spilled, Bernard’s and also Harriet’s, all shedding light on what was really going on in the past and, eventually, the reason Harriet’s life has been so muted, her potential so unrealized. Harriet’s private sorrows, the trauma of her past, her inability to love her daughter adequately – all are explored in their crippling ramifications.

In keeping with the book’s title, most of the story is told in a voice-over manner – but this voice is also that of the rational investigator, perhaps even Harriet’s own analytic self, suppressed for decades, now coming to the fore at this late date. Why did she allow certain things to happen to her, most especially an event that further stifled her promise? The narrating, off-camera voice doesn’t mince words. The reasons are three: “One, an almost instinctive obedience to authority, which you abhor in yourself, though you have no power to stop it. Two, some dark impetus beyond reason, some grotesque thing that’s been living under a rock your whole life (let’s call it repression). And lastly, there’s the truth, plain and shabby as a hobo’s trousers, that you believe yourself to be worthless, though you don’t fully know it yet, at least you haven’t formally acknowledged it.”

Harriet’s regrets are not so much for her unrewarding marriage and lack of career as they are for her own obliviousness and failures as a mother. Trapped by and in motherhood thanks to the times and her personal history, she sees, looking back, that hers was a mom’s life, but one she had failed at – or so she believes. While the author’s compassion toward poor Harriet is clear and his gift for comedy is evident, the book shares an approach that I find in recent novels with women at their centers: The explanation for these women’s unhappiness, self loathing, passivity, or inability to achieve more than they did is not that life is tough and being a human being is a problematic business, but that they have suffered some exceptional trauma or unwholesome upbringing which has shaped their whole being. The consequences of such events in any particular life are of course enduring, but the prevalence of this vein of storytelling leaves us curiously impoverished. It is as if there can’t be such a thing as female failure without an alibi, and that strikes me as special pleading, if not condescension.

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