Like a pebble tossed into a pond, Hilma Wolitzer’s ninth novel, a sweet, gentle exploration of one man’s attempt to overcome grief and regain his life, sends ripples of quiet emotion pulsing outward from its generous heart to fuel a deeply satisfying story of love lost and found.
Edward Schuyler is a middle-school science teacher in his early 60s whose wife, Bee, has died of cancer in what they had thought of, with what he now painfully understands was naïve optimism, as only the “late afternoon of their lives.” Their union of some 20 years, formed after they met while dancing a wedding hora, is solid and warm, with a sex life “more vibrant than anyone, including themselves, would have imagined,” and the kind of easy intimacy that forms the bedrock of any long-term relationship. Edward’s contentment had erased the pain of having been abandoned at the altar by his first love, two decades before he met Bee. He had “known absolute love” and “would always long for it again.”
"Like a pebble tossed into a pond, Hilma Wolitzer’s ninth novel, a sweet, gentle exploration of one man’s attempt to overcome grief and regain his life, sends ripples of quiet emotion pulsing outward from its generous heart to fuel a deeply satisfying story of love lost and found."
But now, he resorts to ironing his late wife’s clothes “as a way of reconnecting with her when she was so irrevocably gone, when he couldn’t even will her into his dreams.” He attends a group session with a grief counselor, but soon realizes “the stages of grief weren’t so neatly arranged or easily disposed of.” It seems he’s destined to live out his days in a placid New Jersey suburb, watching his world slowly shrink around him.
Concerned for their stepfather and hoping to nudge him out of his mourning, Bee’s children place a personal ad in The New York Review of Books, for the “Science Guy,” a man who’s “erudite and kind, balding but handsome,” someone who’s “the real thing for the right woman.” Soon the replies (not merely from literary types) pour into his mailbox, and he finds himself sifting through appeals that range from the heartfelt to the cringe-inducing, as he hesitates before making the first contact.
Edward experiences the curious dance of “dating after death,” meeting one woman (“good looking in a hard-edged, female-action-figure sort of way”) so eager to hustle him into her bed she brushes aside their painful lack of chemistry. Another date’s resort to the most extreme plastic surgery only serves to expose the disturbing gap in expectations between men and women as we age. Some writers might choose to exploit the comic possibilities of these encounters, but Wolitzer’s genuine empathy for her characters redeems them from even a hint of mockery.
Wolitzer also has an acute eye for the rituals of our domestic lives. Though there are the expected scenes of dinners for one, excursions to nature preserves where Edward pursues his bird-watching hobby and even conversations with his aging dog that have him worried he’s slipping into his dotage, she offers enough plot complications (revolving mainly around the return of a former lover) to avoid reducing the novel to a claustrophobic character study. Edward’s stumbles as he navigates the choices confronting him are never less than plausible, even if they at times lack inherent drama. And while he’s on his own journey back to life, he’s a counselor to his stepdaughter in her own search for Mr. Right and a source of honest comfort to his elderly mother-in-law.
With admirable subtlety, Wolitzer reveals how grief merges with our elemental need to find a reason to live. Like any spouse who survives the end of an extended, loving marriage, there’s a tension between Edward’s desire to cling to the lost memory of his joy with Bee, “the safety net, the delightful, sane, predictable days of their marriage,” and the hope he’ll be able to replicate it with someone else. But he recognizes that “the dead seem to hang around for a while, as if to guide and comfort us, and then slowly disappear into an unapproachable distance,” and that if there is happiness to be had, it’s up to him to find it.
Novels like this one can flounder on an excess of sentimentality, but there’s nothing mawkish in Hilma Wolitzer’s portrait of a decent, loving man, just as she displays equal humility in not suggesting there is anything universal in Edward’s story. As much as anything, that exquisite particularity is what distinguishes this wise, warm novel from a host of lesser books.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on February 2, 2012
An Available Man