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Culture Watch

GOOD GRIEF

A novel by Lolly Winston,
Published by Warner Books, 342 pp

This little book is a light telling of a dark time in the life of Sophie Scranton. The opening paragraph sets the scene thus:

“How can I be a widow? Widows wear horn-rimmed glasses and cardigan sweaters that smell like mothballs and have crepe-paper skin and names like Gladys or Midge and meet with their other widow friends once a week to play pinochle. I’m only thirty-six. I just got used to the idea of being married, only test-drove the words my husband for three years: my husband and I, my husband and I … after all that time being single!”

Sophie’s husband, Ethan, has died of cancer, and Sophie is finding that she can’t cope with the loss, with her job, or with the fears and confusions of her new status as widow. After a series of personal melt-downs that include falling apart in the produce section of her supermarket, driving her car through the garage door, and showing up at her office wearing her bathrobe and bunny slippers, Sophie realizes that she must make major changes in her life to regain her sanity.

She moves to Ashland, Oregon, to be near her best friend from college. Bit by bit she takes control of her life, finding a new career, new friends, even taking on a 'Little Sister/Big Sister' relationship with a young teenager who lights fires and is into cutting herself. Slowly but surely Sophie progresses from devastation to strength as she moves through the first hard year of mourning.

Winston’s characters ring true throughout. Even the nuttiest have redeeming qualities, and even the most attractive have flaws (including the dead and much-beloved Ethan). Sophie reaches out not only to the Little Sister from the disastrous family, but also to her mother-in-law, who has developed Alzheimer’s in the months following her son’s death. As so often happens in life, their neediness coincides with her need to be needed, and uncovers strengths that she didn’t know she had.

Despite her light, ironic prose, the author manages to make Sophie’s pain very real to us. But this book will also make you smile and at times laugh out loud. Some of the chapters are labeled with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s very serious “Five Stages of Grief,” but interspersed among headings like “Denial,” “Anger,” and “Acceptance” are headings like “Oreos,” “Lust,” and “Baking.”

Good Grief is an upbeat book in spite of its title, and Sophie is a delightful heroine. Even at her craziest, she will touch your heart and make you smile. And by the end of the book, you will be in love with all the characters Sophie has gathered around her as she forges a new life for herself. The book is a fairly quick read, but it does not lack depth, poignancy, or truth.

Julia Sneden

And Consider This:

 

THREE JUNES

By Julia Glass, © 2002
Published by Anchor Books; Paperback, 353 pp.

This winner of the 2002 National Book Award is Julia Glass’s first novel, and a remarkable first novel it is. The story, which is written in three sections, takes place in both Scotland and America (with side trips to Greece and France) as it traces the relationships of members of the McLeod family and their friends.

The first section introduces us to Paul McLeod, an upright, dependable publisher of a small newspaper in Scotland. Recently widowed, he takes a trip to Greece, where he meets a young woman and fantasizes a relationship with her that abruptly implodes when she becomes involved with the tour guide. He is only mildly disappointed. However, the introspection that the short interlude triggers leaves him determined to do something quite unexpected with his life: He sells his newspaper and begins spending half the year on the island of Naxos.

Julia Glass writes in short, episodic bits, alternating present with memory, so that by the end of the short first section, we know quite a bit about the McLeod family’s history.

The second section begins with Paul’s funeral as orchestrated by his three grown sons: Fenno, the eldest, and twins David and Dennis. The sibling relationships ring absolutely true, and the characters rapidly work their ways into the reader’s heart. Fenno, who is gay, seems most like his intellectual father. Early-on, however, he chose to ignore his father’s hope that he would take over the newspaper. Instead, he emigrated to New York, received a PhD from Columbia, and opened a bookstore. The twins remained in Scotland until happy-go-lucky Dennis, the youngest and at times wildest, found his calling as a chef, and moved to France to study. His marriage to a French woman seems remarkably happy. David, the other twin, stayed at home, married, and became a veterinarian. He and his wife take over Tealings, the family home. The brothers are reunited two or three times a year, when Fenno and Dennis return to Scotland for holidays or other family occasions.

Glass’s ability to write with deep understanding and compassion about the stresses and depths of personal relationships makes this an engrossing read. Only a stone could fail to relate to and care about the McLeod men, their wives, lovers, and friends.

The third section of the book brings many relationships full circle, weaving an intricate tapestry that makes for a highly satisfying read. The story is simple yet sophisticated, and the writing is intelligent and profoundly honest.

 

JS

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Julia Sneden is a writer, teacher, wife, mother, grandmother and care-giver. She lives in North Carolina. jbsneden can be reached by email (at) triad.rr.com

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© 2004 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb
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