While their mother lay dying in a nursing home, Sarah and Emily pick through memorabilia boxed in her attic. A maroon leather-bound book, carrying the slightest scent of dried roses, releases its tiny key, once inserted into a clasp, onto dusty floorboards. Emily carefully plucks the book, a diary, from a cardboard carton. Opening the journal, she reads the first entry, penned in their mother’s recognizable hand, dated July 3, 1951. Sarah reminds Emily that the diary began the year their parents had married.
Entries from the summer of 1951, at least six months prior to the wedding date, will open a window into Elizabeth Marshall’s heart. The discovery that she had dated, loved and married their father, Bob, is comforting. However, Elizabeth’s diary reveals passion for yet another beau, a mysterious man known as A.J. The girls feel like trespassers on their own history by reading the diary, but they cannot close the pages. Their mother is clinging to life a few short miles away, though the end is imminent.
Emily pushes her reluctant, orthodox sister to join in the unraveling of family secrets. Both are enraptured by Elizabeth’s account of her days following graduation. To their mother’s pleasure, Bob has all but proposed. Elizabeth’s cheeks turn crimson when she daydreams about a coming wedding day. Per the 1950s social mores, the couple has kissed and steamed up the windows of Bob’s Buick but has never breeched propriety. She writes of planning to meet him at the county fair, anticipating a romantic evening. Instead, she walks by a sketch artist drawing souvenir pictures for fairgoers. He invites her to take a seat.
Elizabeth and A.J. have known each other since early childhood. In faded jeans, deft with his pastels, he’s muscular and handsome. Angered by her own harmless flirtation, she stiffens and reminds herself that A.J. has spent time at a youth detention facility while she and her crowd have enjoyed high school frivolity. An uneasy curiosity swells her natural cautious instincts. He has fascinated her beyond normalcy for years. Half-flirting, half-mocking, A.J. tantalizes her. He rips the paper from his easel and hands her the portrait.
Elizabeth’s likeness is a caricature: large head, sultry eyes, pouty lips, dressed like Little Bo Peep, with love-struck swains trailing after her. He has drawn her as a tease. Indignant, she rails back at him with the proclamation that she and Bob are soon to be engaged. She expects sarcasm, but A.J. congratulates her. Refusing payment for the drawing, he offers to explain his rudeness and drags her to a footpath beside the area.
Seated by a creek bank, the two talk about their intertwined lives since elementary grades. From a distance, he’s been crazy about her for years. Raised by his grandparents after his parents died, he has endured harsh treatment from them and his bullying uncle. He rebelled with a violent act that landed him at a youth detention center. Today, seeing Elizabeth at the fair reminds him of the vast chasm between them. Though insulting to her, his caricature steels him from hurt.
Reading the diary, Emily and Sarah discover a different reality to the rescue their father had made at a long-ago fairgrounds holiday. Emotions range from shock to grief when the words leap from its pages. Ripped open as a deep wound, the girls discover that Bob has not been Elizabeth’s true love. The reality becomes oppressive and childhood memories blurred by chilling new truths, and they both begin to question decisions of their own.
Goudge writes THE DIARY both in past and present stories. The novel is Elizabeth’s memory of her youthful romances, but the writing reads like a tragic Shakespearean play to her daughters. They are saddened that their father may have been “second choice” rather than her true soul mate. Whatever had been his role in Elizabeth’s life, Bob had been a loving father and devoted husband in the Marshall household.
Expecting the predictable, I discovered an astonishing ending. Goudge scores again with her ability to write a remarkable and satisfying conclusion, gifting her reader with an urgency to fully know one’s parents. THE DIARY is a family’s love story that packs a punch.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on December 29, 2010