Monday, April 26, 2010

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier

Thanks to Lesa's Book Critiques blog, I found out about The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier.  You can read Lesa's review here

From Kirkus Reviews
An oddly passive middle-aged academic switches colleges and comes alive to friends, feelings and a future, in this debut novel from Meier, wife of author Frank Delaney. Partnerless and all but friendless, 48-year-old Dr. Joy Harkness seems to have sleep-walked through much of her life, including a four-year marriage and another 12 teaching literature at Columbia University. But all that's about to change after she accepts a prestigious new post at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Meier's debut breezily mixes the influence of French aestheticism on Henry James with lighter humor and romance as she drops her not-quite-credible heroine into an irresistibly sociable new community in which Joy discovers a perfect if run-down house, falls foul of several campus Lotharios (known as the Coyotes), gets sucked into a spousal-abuse drama and finds herself acting as temporary den mother to four active little girls. Slowly she realizes she is enjoying what she had previously avoided: "the mess of including other people in my life," even stumbling on an unlikely partner in Teddy Hennessy, a gifted, self-taught house-fixer-upper burdened with a cartoonishly possessive mother. Leisurely in pace, intelligent and amiable in tone, the novel glides over its implausibilities, including Joy's paradoxes-simultaneously attractive and insightful while also isolated and unaware. Dodging predictability in the final quarter, Meier takes leave of her heroine in a happy place. An up-market, engaging, feel-good fantasy.

On Post-its
For days on end I had gone through these books in a whirlwind of desperation and excitement, marking pages with yellow Post-its.  They stuck out like messy tongues from every book, at every angle.
On the joy of books/bookshelves
There wre my books!  My precious thesauri, my Elements of Style and my rhyming dictionary; the Columbia Guide to Standard American English and Menckien's American Language; two great Arthur Quiller-Couches, On the Art of Writing and On the Art of Reading; Edward Sapir's Language:  An Introduction to the Study of Speech, Fowler's King's English (of course) and Bartlett (obviously) and Simpson's Contemporary Quotations.  There is T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, and Carl Van Doren, The American Novel.  Bulfinch and Brewer and Joseph Campbell, and--can you imagine?--Teddy found space for all eighteen volumes of my Cambridge History of English and American Literature....  Upstairs in my bedroom, still stacked on the floor and waiting for just the right bookcase and a moment of inspiration from Teddy, lay the books closest to my heart.  Every book by Henry James, every book by John O'Hara, every book by Edith Wharton, Nabokov and Updike.  Novels, short stories and plays by Faulkner, O'Brien, O'Neill, O'Casey and Fitzgerald.  Books full of the collected essays of Gore Vidal, most all of Truman Capote, all of Willa Cather, some of Flaubert, most of Zola, all of Tolstoy, All of Chekhov, all of Proust and Joyce and Meredith, all the plays of Arthur Miller, most of the plays of Philip Barry and J. M. Barrie, William Inge, Tennessee Williams, nearly all I could get my hands on of Stoppard and Caryl Churchill.  There were, of course, my Shakespeares....  There were biographies, auto- and otherwise, in the dozens, from Boswell on Johnson to a ghastly but fascinating Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel I could never make myself throw out.  I loved the way biographies on the shelf made your mind bounce around like a pinball, based on their proximity to one another:  Mary McCarthy to Whitaker Chambers to Anthony Burgess, Matisse to Moss Hart, Leonard Bernstein to Beethoven (or is it the other way around?), Isak Dinesen to Dawn Powell; and most were still in boxes, as were all of the poets.
On style
Did I have any style at all?  I was thinking of Donna in her tiny warm-up suits and Catsup in his heathery tweeds, Bernadette in her soft watercolors and vintage prints and Dan and Josie in their jewel-colored cashmere sweaters and their Hermes and Missoni scarves.  They all had clothes that represented them, clothes that looked like them.  I had clothes that were comfortable and didn't show stains.  Maybe these were the clothes that fit my personality, I thought glumly.
On Thanksgiving dinner aftermath
People return to the table to help themselves to more food, patting their stomachs and saying that they've already had two helpings of the stuffing or three of the squash, onion and apple puree.  Even covered with smears of cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans, bits of meat, stuffing, gravy and puree, my grandmother's china looks beautiful.  It fills the room, as people have left their plates sattered about like leaves in autumn.  The pale robin's-egg blue border on the tiny pleats of Wedgwood porcelain feel as though they've always lived in this house.
I particularly enojed the way Ms. Meier used cultural, movie and TV references to set a scene. 
  • Mamie Eisenhower bangs.
  • Teddy had rewired the bell, and it sounded Andy Hardy old-fashioned in its deep electronic voice.
  • The house was a large split-level ranch at the edge of a development I would have positioned somewhere between Leave It To Beaver and Bewitched.
  • He had a kind of William Holden-in-Sabrina quality; sure of himself, but boyish.  Or Paul Newman in The Long Hot Summer.
  • It's Aunt Elizabeth's house...Aunt Elizabeth's house from Bringing Up Baby.
  • And my favorite, I decided that Philip Barry's line from The Philadelphia Story was the one to hold on to:  "The time to make your mind up about people is never."
I am glad that I was guided by Lesa's review of The Season of Second Chances and not the editorial reviews (Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, etc.) on and because I would have missed a very delicious reading experience.  This book has one of my favorite things--detailed descriptions of interiors and dishes.  I loved picturing in my mind the transformation of Joy's house from an uninhabitable wreck to a fully restored Victorian--the colors chosen for each room, the furniture, and the dishes. 
It took Joy Harkness some time and a lot of emotion to find her comfort zone.  Her brother's long ago adivce held true in the end:  Long, long ago, when I was disappointed at some school friend's slight, my brother reminded me of an idea I've just remembered.  "Don't you get it?" Timmy said.  "No one is using the same yardstick.  Their idea of a full measure is rarely yours--or anyone else's."
Rating:  4/5 (Fiction Scale)

5/9/10 Update:  Click here to view an excellent post on Breaking the Spine where the author comments on the changes that take place in The Season of Second Chances.

6/10/10 Update:  Kristen at BookNAround has just reviewed The Season of Second Chances.  You can read her excellent review here.

8/12/10 Update:  Diane Meier has a post on Head Butler regarding The Season of Second Chances and Chick Lit? Women's Lit?.  Click here to read her comments.
Dedication:  For Sara-Owen and Frank


Nan said...

I'm going to come back after I've read it. It is next in line after the latest Maisie Dobbs I'm now reading.

Nan said...

Here I am again. :<) I ended up not finishing the book and I'm not sure I can explain why. Maybe I wanted all house and books with no people. I just loved the descriptions, the renovation details, the paint colors, and those books, as you quoted. I thought the writing was intelligent and loved all those references you noted - as well as some I had no idea about. But somehow it just didn't hold together for me with the characters. As I said, I can't really put words to it. I did feel fondness for several characters. I skipped ahead so I know what happened, but didn't feel I wanted/needed to read on. Your review was wonderful, though!

Marcia said...

Nan~ I can readily identify with not finishing a book and not being able to explain why! You gave it a go, but it just didn't work for you. As we all know, there are too many books patiently waiting for us to discover them to labor over one that doesn't hit the spot. :)