onathan Evison’s fourth novel recounts the life of a thwarted Seattle housewife. The tale of Harriet Chance is grim. Her mother belittles her, her husband betrays her, her children bamboozle her, and her best friend turns out to be her worst enemy. (And that’s just Harriet’s adulthood. Her childhood, we learn, was darker.) In every situation, poor Harriet draws the short straw. But This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is anything but a drag: Evison, thanks to a goofy narrative gimmick, makes Harriet’s sad story sing.
Harriet’s life is described game-show style by an imaginary host, who says things no real host would ever dare. (“Look at you, Harriet! Maybe a little on the squat side, maybe a little pudgy…but your hygiene is fastidious, your bouffant is formidable!”) This over-the-top commentary conveys the pathos of Harriet’s misadventures with just the right blend of snark and sympathy, and it’s tremendously fun to read. It could also get old fast, and Evison knows not to overdo it: Throughout the novel, game-show chapters alternate with straightforward descriptions of Harriet’s present-day life, which takes an unexpected turn a few months after her husband Bernard’s death.
The result is an appealing, satisfying hodgepodge. One minute we’re plodding up the gangway for an Alaska cruise next to 78-year-old Harriet, a stuffy little widow who never makes a fuss, and the next we’re plunged deep into Harriet’s subconscious, where our imaginary host lays her darkest secrets (and she has plenty of them) hilariously—yet compassionately—bare.
The game-show chapters are consistently terrific. Evison nails his campy TV archetype; though our fictive host is never actually described, he’s the most physically vivid character in the book. (It’s impossible not to picture him prancing and preening, arching his eyebrows, even, perhaps, twirling a sinister mustache.) “Here you come, Harriet Nathan, tiny face pinched, eyes squinting fiercely against the glare of surgical lamps…not the boy your father so desperately wanted, but here you come, anyway,” our host cackles, describing Harriet’s birth in 1936. Subsequent chapters paint a wickedly funny portrait of a typical midcentury matron-in-waiting, as Harriet grows from a quiet little girl (“too quiet”) to an insecure teenager (“This A-line design is supposed to be slimming. But it’s all wrong, your mother says….Your kneecaps look like frozen game hens”) to a nervous, exhilarated bride. “You’ve never been surer about anything, Harriet,” our host remarks, as Harriet stands proudly at the altar. “Not that you haven’t overcome a few nagging reservations over the past year.”
Nagging reservations aside (Should she have stuck with her job as a legal assistant? Is she, as her mother insists, “marrying down”?), at this point in the novel Harriet’s future still looks bright. Bernard is a decent guy. Harriet loves him. “So, why not marriage? It turns out your independence, like your salary, had a ceiling all along. Besides, you’re pregnant,” our host reports. Oops. The year is 1959. What, besides get married, is a decent girl to do?
Marriage and motherhood disagree with Harriet, to say the least. “Suddenly your life is filled with talcum and baby oil and laundry soap. Pee and poop and spit-up. Tide, Wisk, Cheer, you’ve tried them all—yes, even All! But nothing seems to whisk away the tide of despair. Nothing seems to cheer you. All of it is futile.” And worse is yet to come. Bernard, working long hours in the ball-bearing factory, seldom comes home. When he does, he’s wiped out, with no energy for the baby or Harriet. “In bed, he turns his back to you, and you wonder what you’ve done,” our host murmurs—sounding, for the first time, compassionate and kind.
Meanwhile, back in the future, widow Harriet’s life has taken an uncanny turn. She’s sure Bernard is haunting her—leaving cans of WD-40 out so she’ll oil the dishwasher hinges, for example, or trying to cheer her up with a cruise to Alaska. (The cruise drops into Harriet’s lap unexpectedly. Bernard, it seems, bought two tickets at auction, but succumbed to Alzheimer’s before claiming his prize. Nine months after his death, the auction house finally calls.) Bernard must have meant to surprise her, Harriet decides, though it doesn’t make sense—surely he knew that Harriet hates to travel? Well, never mind. She’ll take her best friend Mildred and scatter Bernard’s ashes somewhere scenic along the way.
But Mildred doesn’t want to cruise to Alaska with Harriet. “Darling, I can’t go on pretending,” she tells her bewildered chum. “Forgive me, please.” Meanwhile, Bernard’s ghost (whom Evison, in the novel’s only serious misstep, treats as a real live character) agitates. “The shock might be too much,” he frets from beyond the grave. “I gotta get to her, I gotta explain.” And now Caroline and Skip, Harriet’s ingrate children, show up to tut-tut about their mother’s mental and physical “well-being.”
The book’s real action unfolds inside Harriet’s head. She emerges in fascinating detail, as if from a chrysalis of cliché. She’s much more interesting than we thought.
It’s not too hard to figure out what the next generation is plotting, or what Mildred’s letter says. If Evison thinks this already blown plot will carry his novel all the way to Alaska, he’s a fool.
Yet twists and reveals aren’t really the point of This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! Neither is the story that unfolds aboard the Zuiderdam, though it’s fun to watch Harriet get her hackles up when she finally reads Mildred’s missive:
Her first thought—before how could she possibly have been so oblivious or how could her entire life have been a lie—is how could another woman have possibly loved Bernard for that long? And who was this dashing Bernard in the letter? And why did Mildred get him while Harriet got the bruised ego and the short temper, the irritable Scrabble opponent, the endless lectures on rust prevention?
Evison also does a superb job portraying the fractious, jittery relationship between Harriet and her daughter Caroline, who lock horns without meaning to every time they talk. They can’t go three minutes without ticking each other off, and Evison gets their dialogue exactly right. Too bad ghostly Bernard, who wants Harriet to forgive him, keeps showing up to ruin the mood.
But this is all just surface material—the book’s real action unfolds inside Harriet’s head. As our game-show host shines his gleeful spotlight into all the dark corners of her past, Harriet’s character emerges in fascinating detail, as if from a chrysalis of cliché. She’s much more interesting than we thought. So, for that matter, is Evison’s novel, which sometimes felt like one more version of the tired old tale of female ambition and intelligence squelched by marriage and motherhood. Had Harriet not been born in the bad old days before feminism, would she automatically have been happier? Would she have married a man who appreciated her, had a career that fulfilled her, and raised children who respected her? Would she have lived a life that was satisfying, rich, and carefree?
Alas, probably not. As Evison peels back Harriet’s layers, we see that an unhappy combination of temperament, bad luck, poor decisions, and actual abuse (the novel pulls no punches) made Harriet Chance the woman she turned out to be. It’s a depressing conclusion, but you’ve got to hand it to Harriet. Dealt some lousy cards, she nevertheless managed to stay in the game. Still, it’s hard not to feel sad at the book’s bittersweet ending. Couldn’t Evison have granted Harriet even a tiny, very late bloom—a few devil-may-care years in her eighties, let’s say.