As we Baby Boomers age, our parents, friends and partners start to fail (as do we). They may lose their shape, their agility, their mind, even their life. As we are a large group, more and more literary writers are tackling these topics in their novels and memoirs. Think of recent memoirs of Alzheimer’s, of losing a parent, of losing one’s health to cancer. Writing about such topics heals and, if well done, transcends the personal and becomes universal in its healing effects.
Gail Godwin, one of my favorite contemporary American novelists, has now tackled the loss of her long-time lover (nearly thirty years), the composer Robert Starer, in this fictionalized account of their last days together and of her days without him. Evenings at Five centers on their cozy cocktail ritual; charming drawings by Frances Halsband show us their home, his chair, her desk and computer, his metronome, her thesaurus.
In the Introduction, Godwin tells us why she wrote the book:
“…in the early spring of 2002, as the first anniversary of Robert Starer’s death approached, I was sitting on the sofa with my five o’clock drink and looking at his empty chair across from me. And I began jotting down a list of all the sounds I remembered from our former cocktail hour…” She explains, “I never considered the memoir form because I wanted to write a tale… So it was "Rudy and Christina" from the beginning; I even changed the name of the cat.”
Although I have always loved Godwin’s sensitivity and sensibilities, especially in novels such as A Southern Family, A Mother and Two Daughters and Violet Clay, this is not my favorite book of hers. It is, of course, an extremely touching subject. But because it’s part memoir and part fiction, it is hard to figure out which is which some of the time.
The difficulty lies here: four of the additional short pieces are about this fictional Christina, clearly Godwin at various stages in her life, as well. The author believes the Christina stories she has included qualify as ghost stories. Indeed, Christina continues to have conversations with Rudy’s ghost. What the author also means is that Rudy’s qualities come through in the novella, as do Christina’s in the short stories. For example, one of the truest, most resonant statements in Evenings at Five about Rudy is this:
“If arrogance is the refusal to squander yourself on the unpassionate and the unfascinating, then he is arrogant. But toward her there is a generosity of spirit she recognizes as rare, an attention that is larger than self-consciousness.”
Then, to complicate matters a bit, there is one real memoir in the collection, “Mother and Daughter Ghosts: A Memoir," about Godwin’s relationship with her mother, K, toward the end of her mother’s life. This is one of the most intriguing pieces as their relationship was more and intimate than that of many adult daughters and their mothers. They attended spiritual conferences together and shared their journals.
All in all, these tales do not ultimately satisfy or hold me as her other works have. Perhaps this is because they are based more on brief detail than on longer storytelling. If anything, this reader wants to know more, not less, about Rudy and about Christina’s coming to terms with the huge hole in her life.
I found this book slightly disappointing. However, I look forward to Godwin’s twelfth novel, Queen of the Underworld, and I admire her courage and strength in writing and sharing these personal works.