By Jessica Francis Kane
As May Attaway approaches 40, the age her mother was when she died, she begins to wonder what it has all meant.
“I reached a point where the balance of the past and all it contained seemed to outweigh the future, my mind so full of things said and not said, done and undone, I no longer understood how to move forward.”
She lives in the house where she grew up with her 80-year-old father, who has chosen to live in the basement. She watches her older neighbors die or move into assisted living, replaced by young families who don’t introduce themselves.
She works as a gardener at the university where she earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture.
But an unexpected reward of paid time off from her boss, opens the door to a new perspective. She decides that she will use her time to go visiting. She selects four women whom she has known the longest or whom she feels know her best and sets off.
She takes along a suitcase that she has named Grendel, after the monster in the Old English epic poem, BEOWULF. (“Beowulf is a violent epic about the dangers of being friendless, ” she tells readers. “There’s a party, the misfit is not invited, he sulks outside, then comes in, wreaks havoc, and is killed.”)
Her visits reveal that her friends are not living the perfect lives of their holiday letters. (One is in the throes of a divorce and a challenging custody situation. Another is a social media influencer tiring of the effort involved in seeming perfect.) But they have opened their homes to her, and their gentle chidings about her failure to help maintain their friendships are heard.
These visits open May’s eyes and heart to the people in her every day life. She starts looking at those who “collect friends easily,” and thinking about the Dunbar number, “the maximum number of people with whom any individual can maintain stable relationships.”
This is a gentle book. Nothing explodes. Planets don’t collide. Doom and catastrophe don’t overtake a community.
Over the course of this lovely novel, May changes course. She turns away from letting life carry her toward a life as an alienated recluse, modern day, albeit gentle, Grendel. She becomes a person who reaches out and shares herself and her life.
About the Author: Jessica Francis Kane