No question, Harriet Chance is an unlikely heroine. She’s seventy-eight years old. She calls everyone “dear.” She’s been married fifty-five years to Bernard, who has “at times” honored her and “occasionally” cherished her. Like many women of her generation, she’s had a job or two, but never the career she envisioned. She’s raised their two children and been a housewife most of her life. The most remarkable thing about her, at first glance, is that she still seems to have all her marbles.
Or so we might think, until Jonathan Evison takes us on a rollercoaster ride through her past, connecting dots that could have formed an entirely different Harriet. This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a book obsessed with possibilities. The narrative travels back and forth through time, peering down paths not taken to discover Harriet’s “lost life,” the one she only glimpses or imagines as she does her best to navigate the one she’s living. Evison, the author of three previous novels including The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (now a film starring Paul Rudd), doesn’t entirely let her off the hook for the “botched decisions; the cowardly retreats; the circumstances [she] might have controlled, avoided, or otherwise been spared,” but he also implicates everyone else.
It’s not easy to dramatize a quiet life, but Evison’s take on the everyday is wonderfully strange. Consider this exchange between Harriet and her husband at the supermarket. After a long career in maintenance, Bernard is predictably incensed by a faulty cart:
“They couldn’t even get that right.”
“Shhh,” says Harriet, looking around the cereal aisle, “Not here!”
“Christ, if they’d just fit the damn bearings to the races properly.”
“Bernard, shush! Don’t make a scene.”
They could be any elderly couple carping at each other in public, except that by this point, Bernard’s been dead for nine months, and only Harriet believes he’s there.
Harriet is a tough character to write. She’s always been passive, a too-quiet child who never learned to speak up for herself and let others make most of her decisions for her. When we meet her at seventy-eight, Bernard’s grueling bout with Alzheimer’s has sharpened her edges, and we get a welcome glimpse of the spunk she’s rarely shown:
“Of course, he went much quicker than he might have with a brain tumor. Physically, anyway.”
“Well, that’s a blessing I’m sure.”
“It was no blessing, dear, let me tell you.”
“Well, I’m certainly sorry to hear it. You’re welcome to—”
“Unless you consider urinating in Walmart a blessing.”
“I see, well, as I was about to s—”
“Or wandering Cline Spit in your pajamas.”
When Harriet finally lets this woman finish her sentence, she learns the reason for her call: Bernard never claimed an Alaskan cruise he won at a charity auction. It’s her ticket now, the first of many surprises to come her way, and Harriet decides to take the adventure, unaware that she’ll have to reckon with her dead husband, her estranged daughter Caroline, and a lot of difficult discoveries along the way.
In an interview, Evison said that at first his editor didn’t like Harriet. By the third draft, he was still trying to get at her “from the outside in” before he hit on the idea of using a second narrator. This voice speaks directly to Harriet as though she’s starring in an episode of This Is Your Life, and Evison gets the brisk pacing and jocular, Golden-Age-of-Television delivery just right in these chapters, undercutting the gloss of Harriet’s aspirations with blunt realities:
While there’s only so much you can do to fudge the math, nobody makes an issue of bouncing baby Skipper’s arrival, seven and a half months after your wedding day. And just in time for Christmas! You’ve got what you wanted, Harriet: stockings festooning your hearth. And you got a lot more in the bargain, too: a colicky infant who doesn’t sleep and never stops filling diapers, a ruined figure, a husband who’s never home . . .
This voice is also “[f]rank, unsentimental, uncompromising, to the point,” just like the person Harriet might have been. Evison intersperses these chapters with those written from her perspective, and the juxtaposition of the two voices brings Harriet’s inner life to the fore.
Memoir often relies on this kind of interplay between two voices in a narrative. The memoirist Sue William Silverman has named them “the voice of innocence,” which describes an event, and “the voice of experience,” which interprets and reflects on it. Twining the two gives us both the lived moment in all its immediacy and a mature perspective, the kind Harriet isn’t quite self-aware enough to give us herself:
. . . you sometimes think of your lost life . . . you’re still tracking that alternate you, as though your paths diverged at some distant juncture and went their separate ways.
You sometimes wish you could ask the other you for advice, or guidance or clarity, or at the very least a little perspective on the life you’ve muddled so badly. . . . You sometimes wish the other you could tell your story.
Wouldn’t that have been something.
Characters like Harriet appear only rarely in fiction for the same reason they’re overlooked in real life: they can’t tell their own stories. Evison has given Harriet Chance not one voice but two in a book that should make us take a closer look at the women we know who never “made a name” for themselves, as Harriet once aspired do, and yet have “given, given, given.”
Now that’s something.