An unavoidable part of the human condition is the process of growing older; there is no escaping the inevitable stacking of days past and the perpetual accumulation of memories as one goes forward. A life well-lived can be measured by the relationships made and the experiences shared. Being a commonality for all means that the concept of growing old supplies many a writer with ample fodder for storytelling. But, being an often overworked trope, a story about aging also opens the door for an unremarkable read.
Luckily for readers, there is “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance,” by Jonathan Evison to provide a contemplative, funny, and sensitive take on the polychromatic journey of life. Written from shifting perspectives and with no linear timeline, the book is like a deck of cards painted with scenes of Harriet Chance’s life, and that deck is shuffled and then scattered across the pages, resulting in a patchwork of moments, both large and small, that are in turns amusing, heartbreaking, and recognizable in their universality.
Evison’s book opens with a moment literally every person experiences—birth. The “here you come, Harriet…” voice that begins the story becomes the occasional narrator, whose perspective is interspersed within the more common third person “present-day” story arc of the lonely life of the elderly and recently widowed protagonist, Harriet Chance.
As Harriet’s life’s journey is revealed, secrets are disclosed and griefs and joys are detailed, so when the Harriet of “now” decides to go solo on an Alaskan cruise that her husband, Bernard had won, unbeknownst to her, at a silent auction before he died, the experience becomes a pivotal exploration of the woman she is now on her own, with her own reclaimed identity, versus the woman she had been for so many years as a wife and a mother.
At is core, Evison’s book is an examination of human identity, and what that means as a person grows older and begins to entwine and interact with other people. This, as well as the isolation and the loss of control that many elderly people experience, plays heavily as a theme throughout the book. Just how much of a person’s “self” is a result of their unique life’s journey, with the baggage, the sorrows and victories, and ultimately the regrets that are inevitable?
Family can lay claim to a person, shrinking idealistic dreams and goals down to domestic or economic necessity. This is the Harriet we see through the narrator’s eyes, a woman who has spent her life with an identity that has been slowly thinning, falling away beneath the unfulfilling focus of her home-making success.
In the wake of her husband’s death, uncomfortable truths about their marriage are revealed, building the framework for the reboot that Harriet is forced to face, both with rediscovering her own individuality, and with moving beyond the dysfunctional relationship she has had with her adult daughter. Written with both humor and pathos, “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance” probes the juncture where those two intersect, where the beautiful melancholy of life is the sweetest.