This is a novel about taking stock of one’s life—and perhaps finding the courage to jettison our defense mechanisms. Esmé, a writer in her sixties, is experiencing a prolonged creative paralysis. Instead of working on a new novel, she’s put off dealing with her writer’s block by continuing to give public readings of her last published work. Then one night someone from her past shows up in the audience, and the unexpected encounter propels her into reviewing both the childhood loss that scarred her and her first year of college, which she views as the worst year of her life. The two events have combined to turn her into a defensive person who deliberately avoids both memory and commitment.
Her voyage of reminiscence occurs at the same time that she faces an upheaval to her current life as major as her long-ago enrollment at a strange university in an alien part of the country. Her lover, Gino, has asked her to live with him, a move that will force her to leave the carefully constructed routine and cocoon that have surrounded and cushioned her for decades. Esmé makes the physical move, but can she risk the psychological and emotional shifts that will be necessary to commit herself to Gino? Or will she once again retreat?
Esmé is a sharply drawn character who makes mordant observants about the world and records her experiences in memorable detail—in sentences such as this one about a childhood visit to Pittsburgh: “The Sound of Music on a screen so immense that I felt pressed back in my seat by a barrage of pictures and sounds—I had nightmares about the Baroness’ nostrils and the way the peals of thunder rattled inside of my chest.”
The COVID-19 pandemic makes its appearance, but instead of dominating the narrative, it works on Esmé as it did on so many of us—as a catalyst toward reevaluating our lives. I found myself rooting for Esmé the entire novel, and the ending felt satisfying without being too tidy or forced.