By Susan Minot
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
$23, 264 pp.
A Woman lies in bed, suffering from cancer. Her life draws to a close amid a haze of painkillers and memories of a man she adored. With main ingredients such as these, Susan Minot's latest novel. Evening, could have collapsed into a shmaltzy mess of tear-jerking reflections on life and love. Minot, however, does more than deftly avoid this route in her lyrical tribute to the self-awareness that "falling in love" can engender. In the end, we do come away struck by the underlying sadness of the tale, not because we realize what "might have been," but because inherently tragic events are not masked by analysis, whether it be Ann's illness or the death of a family friend.
In a way, Evening is fundamentally a revision of the timeworn cliché, "I saw my life passing before my eyes." The central thread at work is Ann's extended flashback of the summer weekend in which she met Harris Arden, a weekend which draws itself out over the entire novel in a lush, lingering continuum of heightened sensations, the country setting of water and trees providing the perfect isolated arena for Ann's realizations about life to flower. For the first time, she realizes that "falling in love" can mean talking control of one's own life. In Ann's words, "Every defense she'd ever consciously or unconsciously taken refuge behind suddenly dropped like the buildings you saw demolished in clouds of dust and in its place a new scaffolding was thrown up, a structure upon which she could build a life." Harris, however, has a fiancée, and at weekend's end, Ann can only hope that they will meet again at some future time.
In the midst of her remembrance, Ann recalls a last conversation with Harris, while we also gain glimpses of her children, anxiously waiting at her bedside as her death draws near. There is nothing new about the intervening years between Ann's encounter with Harris and the time of her illness; she marries three times, has children and deals with her husbands one by one as they betray her or die or simply leave her.
Truth be told, the plot is hardly action-packed or particularly original, but this doesn't mean that Evening is any less interesting to read. Minot saves us from boredom through her experimentation with words, which becomes the true focal point of the novel and admirably recreates Ann's sentiments and state of mind. At times, the boundaries of grammar dissolve into an endless stream of images that jump from fragments of one remembered moment or conversation to another. Smelling the balsam in a cushion someone gave her, for instance, sets off a chain of memory in which "The air seemed to fracture into screens which all fell crashing in on one another in a sort of timed ballet with spears of light shooting through and something erupted in her chest with a gush and in her mind's eye she saw her hands forty years younger..." Although the device can be potentially confusing, it all manages to work, the stream-of-consciousness-like presentation of Ann's memories standing in cool contrast with the straightforward narration of her conversation with Arden or the idle talk of her children.
Structurally, because the novel is reflecting on the past, there is an inherent stability in the narrative: the outcome is already known, and therefore the fluidity of Minot's language is not as jarring as it might be. We always know that her narrative is moving forward toward something, although like her characters, we must wait for it to arise. Ultimately, Minot conveys the sense that there is nothing extraordinarily unsettling, or sad, about Ann's years of waiting. Similarly, there is nothing extraordinarily sad in the conversations Ann's children have among themselves.
In fact, although tragic things happen to them, there is nothing inherently tragic about any of Minot's characters, partially because they are never really developed as solid individuals with weaknesses we can identify. They are, rather, presences, whether the powerful presence of Harris, or the flirty presence of Ann's friend Gigi Wittenborn. We get a sense of two Anns--Ann Grant and Ann Lord, the Ann of her youth who was dazzled by Harris Arden, the older, married Ann who has spent her life waiting--yet it is difficult to place how exactly they are different except in name, and they merge together into one over the course of the novel.
Evening, then, while not particularly joyful, is not a novel about grief. It is compelling in its honesty, showing us the near-selfishness created by love without lecturing us or demanding that we listen. Minot expertly balances the intertwined threads of her novel, moving the story along in a verbal tapestry that plays with the potential of language without insisting that we read a deeper meaning in her word play. Perhaps its elements have been done before, but Evening is still able to transcend the bounds of its cliched parts to create a lovely and eye-opening whole.