What I read … and lived
I just finished Hazel Prior’s novel How the Penguins Saved Veronica–a sweet (but fairly predictable) tale of how Veronica McCreedy finds purpose and healing after a lifetime of sorrow and rejection. After watching a documentary titled Earth Matters, Veronica travels to Antarctica to observe the scientists studying Adelie penguins–with the intent of leaving her millions to their research endeavors when she dies. You can probably imagine their reaction when an eighty-six-year-old woman writes to announce her impending arrival and won’t take no for an answer. Veronica is a force to be reckoned with and the team can only hope that the harsh conditions will discourage her from staying.
Of course she stays. Of course she finds love and connection and meaning–old age be damned.
But what is it, I want to know, with the spate of crochety-old-folks-turned-warm-and-fuzzy novels that fill the shelves over the past several years? Think about it, Friend. A Man Called Ove. Miss Benson’s Beetle. Heaven Adjacent. The Clock Dance*. The Misremembered Man. Lucille Boxfish Takes a Walk. Harold Frye. Miss Queenie Hennesey. Olive Kitteridge. Arthur Pepper. Good stories all, yes. Characters worth loving, to be sure. But why are all these old folks so darn prickly? So dour and gloomy? And why is it that we’re given the idea that to die happy we must set off walking across the country or butterfly hunt in the South Pacific or fly off to Paris?
Is this how the world sees us?
I became a bit leery of these portrayals when I noticed that many of the writers themselves are not even pushing fifty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I understand that writers don’t need to experience a circumstance to write about it. Shakespeare didn’t need to kill a king in order to write Hamlet. Tolstoy wasn’t a woman in love, yet Anna Karenina is among the best. No, a writer’s task is to take us to places we’ve never been and show us a world we never imagined–to seduce us into falling in love with characters who live only on the deckle edged page.
I get that.
I don’t think it’s the Grand Adventure that bother me, but the fact that we are lead to assume that the Grand Adventure will save us. What I’m wanting are characters who mirror my own experience–and that of my friends–more closely. Characters who don’t waste seventy years of their lives walled off from others, stuck in their suffering. Characters who live with life’s dualities–connection and separation, joy and sorrow, plenty and want, success and defeat–and still manage to eke out some measure of happiness. But I’m guessing a story like that would hardly be a bestseller and there’s the rub.
But back to that book again–How the Penguins Saved Veronica? Get yourself a copy and enjoy. It’s a delightful read about a cranky old gal.
* Anne Tyler is an exception at eighty. So it’s probably no accident that her Clock Dance was one of the best portrayals I’ve read of an older woman coming to terms with her choices with equanimity, a woman who moves forward into the unknown and says, “There is no limit to the possibilities.” (Also interesting is that my thirty-something daughter’s reaction to Clock Dance was “Meh”!)