There are many kinds of pandemic readers: the roll-up-their-sleeves researchers who make their own sourdough starter from dried fruit and some flour and water before re-grouting their bathroom; goal-oriented scholars who vow to finally knock out “War and Peace” or “In Search of Lost Time”; the grass-is-blackened-and-crispy-on-the-other-side dystopia hunters.
I am not any of those readers. Give me a sense of community (or, in fact, NBC’s “Community,” which has become our family’s equivalent of an apartment hearth fire during the pandemic).
Two debut novelists offer that in spades this spring. “The Love Story of Missy Carmichael,” by Beth Morrey, and “The Big Finish,” by Brooke Fossey, offer unconventional love stories and a recognition that “sometimes we need mending and sometimes we need somebody else to help us thread the needle,” as Fossey’s irrepressible protagonist Duffy Sinclair says.
Duffy is in his late 80s and lives in Centennial, one of two assisted living homes in Everton, Texas. The other one, whose name he refuses to utter on principle, strikes terror in the hearts of every resident, particularly since Centennial’s new owner wants to move out the long-term residents in favor of a higher-paying clientele.
For now, Duffy and his roommate Carl rule the roost “because we were able-bodied for the most part, intellectually sound, and, as I point out ... movie-star handsome.” One morning, a young woman with a black eye climbs in their window, claiming to be Carl’s granddaughter. Duffy, who’s in recovery, recognizes a fellow alcoholic and, against his better judgment, finds himself waging a campaign to help Josie – aided and abetted by Carl and several other charming characters. While the adventure comes in through the window, rather than Duffy going out of it, à la “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared,” “The Big Finish” offers motorcycle rides, hitchhiking, kidnapping, and a big-hearted hero who’s willing to make a fool out of himself to help someone he just met. “You get to tell one story here, and you don’t get a rewrite,” he tells Josie. “So what do you want it to say?”
In “The Love Story of Missy Carmichael,” septuagenarian Millicent Carmichael lives in a big, empty old house in London, desperately missing her husband, Leo. “[W]hen he was gone, the silence enveloped and overwhelmed me. Such crushing silence. It seemed like my whole life had been a cacophony, a constant buzzing and background chatter, and then Leo went and there was suddenly total and absolute stillness. Stillness, and silence and space. What I’d supposedly craved all those years, and it was the worst, most cloying thing I’d ever experienced.”
During a fateful trip to the park, Missy does the totally unexpected: Makes a friend. Through a series of events, she finds herself the caregiver of Bob the dog, whose owner is fleeing an abusive spouse, and her life opens up after years of contracting. Instead of boy meets girl, it’s woman meets dog ... and ultimately, herself. Morrey unspools Missy’s life story gradually, in between chapters about Bob and the assorted friends who take Missy under their wing.
At a time when people are having to isolate, both these novels are a balm, offering an expansive sense of love and possibility at a time when the main characters feel like those chances are gone.