It’s not often that a story told from a man’s point of view is written by a woman, but Fireworks by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop never trips up enough in the voice of its main character to make the reader question that fact.
Hollis Clayton is a writer living in the New England town of Baybury, and he’s had better summers. With his wife leaving town to “think about things,” the recent loss of their young son and his own mother leaving him at an early age, Hollis has justifiable abandonment issues. He is irritably needy. Some readers might feel sorry for him in spite of his extramarital affair and poor professional behavior.
Hollis is lonely, his spirit virtually dead. He has an intimate relationship with Jack Daniel’s (“Jack” is mentioned more often than any other character). Perhaps he doesn’t bother to contemplate suicide because he doesn’t have the time, what with all his obsessions to keep him busy. He is frequently distracted from his own pity party with such activities as binoculared spying on neighbors, fretting over a missing-person billboard, going through attic boxes, and clipping the hedges every day within an inch of their lives.
The story is told in a way that asks us to be interested in the outcome of his marriage but may not be told in a way for us to care. Hollis’ wife, Claire, is the least-described character in the book, and we never meet her formally. She will appear in flashbacks, but not enough to fully develop her character. The relationship between Hollis and Claire is not described to evoke the feeling that these two were blissfully happy once and absolutely belong together.
Through first-person narration, we get inside Hollis’ head, and get to know him very well. Hollis is very self-disclosing, telling the reader what his quirks are and demonstrating his many compulsions. It is the thoughts that traverse Hollis’ brain that give us a rich detail into his personality as well as his overactive imagination.
While most of us may not obsess to the same degree, the details of his thoughts feel unique and original, yet familiar and universal. They are thoughts we’ve all had but never put them into words ourselves. If you don’t empathize with him at first, he may grow on you.
Hollis’ life seems hopeless at times, and his behavior often does not help the situations he’s in. One of the underlying questions throughout the story is: Who is going to save this poor clod from himself and help him experience something other than loneliness and grief?
We get a much better feel for the other characters in the story than we do his wife. The most engaging moments are the different turning points he experiences with these other characters, including a stray dog. One theme I walk away with is that redemption and the source of the realization that life is worth living and living well can come from unexpected places.