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A Quiet Life


A Quiet Life

Ethan Joella’s debut, A LITTLE HOPE, was a "Read with Jenna" Bonus Pick. His follow-up, A QUIET LIFE, is a poignant and inspiring novel about three extraordinary people living with grief --- and the ways their lives intersect and allow them to save one another through small, meaningful acts.

Set in a small (but not claustrophobically so) suburb in Pennsylvania in the dead of winter, the book introduces readers to elderly Chuck Ayers, who is learning to live alone after the tragic death of his beloved wife, Cat; Ella Burke, a down-on-her-luck mother who has not seen her daughter in months; and Kirsten Bonato, a young woman who lost her father suddenly and now struggles to move on in her romantic life. At first glance, they could not be more different. However, although their reasons for grieving are unique --- cancer, kidnapping, gun violence --- their relationships with their missing loved ones and the grief that fills their vacancies unite them even before they meet.

"Ethan Joella is an incredibly skilled writer who is able to render some of humanity’s toughest emotions --- grief, hope, love --- in simple yet deeply resonant lines that stick with his readers and move them."

When we encounter Chuck, not only is he preparing to go through and toss or donate some of Cat’s items, he is considering the possibility of visiting the vacation rental that they booked in Hilton Head, South Carolina. For years the trip was the highlight of their time together; they loved filling the car with necessities and “just in case” items, blasting the radio to the hits of their youth and basking in the luxury of retirement and liberation. He knows that Cat, the backbone and merrymaker of their family, would want him to go, and he realizes that his married adult children would never begrudge him a break from his grief.

But Chuck has found that in the months since Cat’s death, he feels paranoid about leaving home. With no one to watch over the beautiful house they bought and filled with memories --- ceramic Christmas trees, paintings, endless crumbs from their snacking children --- he worries that something awful will happen, even though he knows the worst possible tragedy has already welcomed itself right into his lovely home. He also fixates on a fight that he and Cat had before she was ever sick: the one time he told her “no,” and she told him he was horrible.

Across town, Ella lives in a shoddy apartment with a makeshift bedroom that reminds her of her daughter Riley’s room in the house she shared with her ex-husband, Kyle. She has not seen Riley in months, not since Kyle picked her up from school amid their custody battle and disappeared with her. With no leads and no hope, Ella ambles along, distracting herself with two jobs: a bridal boutique sales position and a newspaper delivery job, where she watches the same sad old man through the glow of his windows every morning and wonders what prevents him from sleeping through her route like the rest of the world.

Even deeper in the same town resides Kirsten, who has always loved animals. Although she has found her dream job working at a local rescue shelter with a kind, supportive boss, she feels stagnant. She long dreamed of attending veterinary school, but those hopes were dashed when her father was shot outside of a gas station and the world seemed to end. Her life has whittled down to no ambitions, only a few friends and no romantic life to speak of…except for a quiet, harmless interest in her boss, David.

A few years older and divorced with two kids, David is far from the hunk Kirsten's friends are chasing across bars and clubs, but she takes comfort in his stability and security, not to mention how he always seems to know what to say. At the same time, though, David’s assistant, Greyson, is making his interest in Kirsten clear, putting her at the center of a romantic triangle that exists mostly in her head but is no less full of real-life potential.

In their small town, Chuck, Ella and Kirsten are just close enough to recognize one another without knowing the ins and outs of one another’s lives. Yet, as Joella pulls the strings, their stories intertwine in beautiful, harmonious ways: Ella’s stumble outside of Chuck’s house leads to him giving her his car; Chuck’s loneliness prompts him to consider adopting a pet, where he runs into one of Cat’s most beloved art students, Kirsten; a work visit to David’s apartment introduces Kirsten to his neighbor, Ella, who relays the most painful parts of her story as a new development simmers in the background.

These are people living --- as the title suggests --- quiet lives, extraordinary only for their ordinariness, but it is the depth with which Joella infuses them that makes this story far greater than the sum of its parts. His plotlines are deceptively simple, but the way that he brings his characters together while delving deep into their separate and shared griefs turns the narrative into something both humbling and affirmative, tragic yet redemptive.

Ethan Joella is an incredibly skilled writer who is able to render some of humanity’s toughest emotions --- grief, hope, love --- in simple yet deeply resonant lines that stick with his readers and move them. He takes a keen interest in both lives unlived and lives lived secretly, granting them each the same attention and compassion. He does this so well that you find yourself grieving for the lives lost before you even meet his beautiful, memorable characters, and their arcs of redemption and hope are that much stronger for it. This is a novel for anyone looking for certainty in the world, their loved ones and themselves.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on December 10, 2022

A Quiet Life
by Ethan Joella

  • Publication Date: November 21, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1982190981
  • ISBN-13: 9781982190989