Harriet Nathan was born November 4, 1936. On April 16, 1959 she became Mrs. Bernard Chance and gave up her ambition to become a lawyer. She had been ambitious, but it was a time when women were mostly homemakers, mothers, secretaries or teachers. Harriet and Bernard had two children, Skipper and Caroline. If not a perfect life, at least all seemed right with the world. She was aptly named since as her life rolled out in the novel, we were privy to her efforts to explore and view all of her past mistakes, rethink them and make amends where she could. Other characters did the same. It also gave her the chance to discover the truth about previously kept secrets which affected her life profoundly.
Secrets and traumas were revealed as the narrative traveled from day one of her birth to the last day of her life. In alternate chapters, the reader was taken from the past which began in 1936, to the present, 2015, moving forward through several specific years in between when momentous or life-changing events occurred for Harriet. She was known as a quiet girl. She did what all women of that era did; she took care of the hearth and home and made sure it was a heallthy place for her husband and children. She was devoted, self-sacrificing and uncomplaining, but she was never truly over the moon with happiness. Even with the disappointments she sometimes dealt with and felt, she never stopped loving her husband. This is a love story with secrets, surprises and very unexpected revelations and consequences. Harriet’s 50+ years of marriage apparently suffered from a lack of communication on many levels. Her children experienced growing pains throughout the years, but eventually turned out okay, although her daughter was a recovering addict and her son was currently in financial straits. Her life was filled with surprises and the consequences of long held secrets. It is told with a light touch of both humor and seriousness, but neither approach is too overwhelming.
Harriet’s life, desires, dreams and disappointments are exposed as the story develops. She sometimes felt overburdened when she started a family, disillusioned by her inability to achieve her desire to become a professional, but caring for her son Skip and her husband prevented her from going back to school and achieving that goal of working in a man’s world. She dreamed of returning someday, to some state of independence, and when her son was old enough, rather than ask her successful father for help getting a job, she approached his close friend instead, a man she had known throughout her childhood. He happily hired her, and it was at this point in her life that it became necessary for her to harbor a life-changing secret. One rash moment sent her back to her hearth and home to raise another child, a child named Caroline who always felt as if she were second best.
Her husband Bernard became fairly successful, while she was a stay at home mom, but he traveled a lot and their relationship cooled. Passion basically disappeared from their marriage, but she was never truly sure about why this happened. She felt a bit neglected. He rarely did more than harrumph at her comments and she was needy for conversation and companionship. Her friend Mildred, a woman she met in church, became her salvation. When Bernard became seriously ill and died, Mildred helped her through her grief, but Mildred also had a terrible secret, a secret that she wanted desperately to unburden herself of, by revealing it to Harriet. That secret would shake the very foundations of Harriet’s past life, upending her world view.
Bernard Chance, also became a quiet man, although he could be and sometimes was, an abusive husband, especially toward the end of their marriage of 54 years which seemed to be withering on the vine. Still, when he became ill, Harriet tended to his needs as best she could. When he died, though, she had him cremated rather than buried, as he wished. The reader will wonder why she disobeyed his instructions.
Out of the blue, one day she received a phone call telling her that Bernard had won an Alaskan cruise, but had never claimed it. Believing that he must have wanted the two of them to go, she decided to go anyway and asked her best friend Mildred to accompany her. At the last moment, Mildred backed out. Harriet, against the wishes of her children, decided to go alone. She boards the ship with Bernard’s ashes stored in an empty yogurt container and prepares to enjoy the trip. She intended to disperse the ashes somewhere in Alaska. Her friend Mildred’s son had driven her to the cruise line, and he had left a letter with her from his mom. He told her that his mom did not want her to read it until after she boarded the ship, and she complied. After reading the letter, Harriet discovered that she and Bernard had both seriously deceived each other. There were devastating secrets hidden in their pasts. She discovered that along with herself and Bernard, her best friend Mildred also had a heavy secret! Disturbed, even distraught, by the new information she had learned, she left for dinner to try and forget about it, became drunk and made a scene. She had to be removed from the dining room and escorted back to her cabin, but she had little memory of the evening when she awoke in the morning. However, she was in for a g surprise. Her daughter appeared out of nowhere. She had decided to take Mildred’s place and take the cruise with her.
As mother and daughter bonded, they also had moments when they drew further apart. Their relationship had always been far from perfect. Harriet discovered that her children had been scheming together to take over her assets. As Caroline and Harriet revealed their secrets to each other, the ground beneath their feet was suddenly not so solid; this was not due to being on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Their world was erupting because of new information and revelations about their past and present.
The story is a love story, in a unique way. It a story about a love that could survive betrayal and distance; it is a story about a love that became more apparent for both Bernard and Harriet, and even her children, after his death. There were moments of magical realism, mysticism or hallucinations; I was never quite sure which it was; was Harriet in the throes of episodes of dementia? She saw Bernard; she saw evidence of his presence in her home; she had conversations with Bernard and actual sightings of Bernard, after his death, on the cruise ship. Did he truly come back to help her, to reveal his love for her, or did Harriet work out her own guilt with her imaginings of his corporeal presence, even after he had been cremated? Did the conversations between Bernard and CTO Charmichael ever really happen, or did Harriet completely make them up out of whole cloth in her waking dreams?
Although I was touched by the story, by its honesty and sincere presentation of the relationship between each of the individuals presented, who made mistakes but still maintained their dignity and character, still maintained a connection, even with a false façade, with those they loved, the ending left me hanging. I wanted to know how Harriet would have confronted Mildred when she returned home from the cruise. I wanted to know if she sold her house to help her son financially. If she did, where would she have settled? Did she have a premonition of her own death? However, Harriet simply dropped from the scene, and the answers to these questions remained unknown. Was her death too convenient? Because of my unanswered questions, I felt as if the book never ended for me; it felt incomplete.
Susan Boyce did an excellent job narrating the story presenting each character so authentically and expressively that they could have walked out of the book and assumed human form. The author’s use of language and dialogue was filled with imagery which painted the characters so clearly that they appeared lifelike in my mind’s eye. Harriet, in particular, appeared to me in her old fashioned way of dressing, and her behavior made me smile.
I recommend the book in either print or audio form because it is well written and presented and will be totally enjoyable in either format.