As I approach the 40-year mark in my life, I find myself looking back with increasing regularity and wondering, How on earth did I get here? Instead of a life as a jet-set National Geographic reporter with a villa and a lover on every continent, I live in rural New England (not in a villa), where excitement means racing from work to daycare when one of my boys gets hit in the eye.
Although I have no regrets -- I love my children, my husband and my home -- when I rehash the long series of seemingly insignificant decisions that resulted in very significant life consequences, I feel the need to move forward into the second half of my life more deliberately, with both attention and intention, to "go confidently in the direction of [my] dreams. Live the life [I've] imagined."
This misquote from Thoreau is the jumping-off point and title for Kristina Riggle's new novel, The Life You've Imagined, and could easily be woven through Cassie Premo Steele's novel Shamrock and Lotus. Both books center on characters who find themselves returning home at midlife, where they must face the past, heal or let go of old relationships, slay inner and outer demons, and move forward into the future, born anew.
The main characters in Shamrock and Lotus, Brigid, Claire and Padmaj, come to Dublin, Ireland, from different parts of the world, for disparate reasons, yet each searches for the meaning of home in both literal and metaphorical ways. Brought together by chance, the three are drawn closer by their shared rootlessness and imbalance. Through their newfound friendship, each character begins to grow and reclaim part of themselves, until a terrorist attack sends them spinning in divergent directions, only to draw them together again through a process of rebirth.
Similarly, the four central characters in The Life You've Imagined, Anna, her mother Maeve, and her high school friends Amy and Cami, find themselves drawn home, where they too balance on the cusp of an uncertain future. Circumstances pull these unlikely friends back into each other's orbit as each embarks on a personal transformation.
Both novels hinge on relationships among women, though it is the complex connection between mothers and daughters that brings the stories to life. In Shamrock and Lotus, for example, as Claire hovers on the verge of a new phase in life, her daughter Miriam says to her, "'Don't you remember? You told me that's why you wanted a daughter -- so we could go through life with faith in each other.'" This moment marks a shift in their relationship, a point at which Miriam, having worked through her own crisis, begins to stand on her own and Claire begins to lean on her for emotional support.
In The Life You've Imagined, Maeve and Anna also start to dissolve that barrier of mistrust and resentment that often builds as daughters embark on adulthood. Anna notes of her mother, "I'm startled to see how much our hands look alike. Our veins and tendons stand out so clearly." A newfound urge to take care of her mother, who faces the loss of her home and livelihood and clings to the hope that her long-absent husband will rescue her, causes Anna to extend her short visit home and risk her own career.
Anna's friend Amy, a fat high school outcast reinvented as a thin, beautiful bride, endangers her relationships with her still-overweight mother and with her fiance through her new obsession with perfect appearances. Nonetheless, Amy's actions illustrate the enduring tenderness she feels toward her obese mother. In the wedding dress boutique, Amy is solicitous: "I take her elbow and point her toward a low bench, upholstered in crushed velvet. It's wide enough for two, or wide enough for her.... She crosses her legs at her ankles because she can't cross them at her knees."
For many of the characters in both books, it is this mother-daughter relationship that draws them, sometimes reluctantly, to the idea of "home" -- a place of childhood and ancestors, and even the earth itself. In Shamrock and Lotus, Claire observes, "In America, I'd never thought about history. I knew I was part Irish, but I had never thought about what it meant." She begins to connect deeply with the land of her ancestors, a connection that is mirrored in her relationships with her new friends: Padmaj says to Brigid and Claire, "We have crossed many oceans to be together on this land....But it is the same earth that lies beneath us all."
A more literal sense of home, that of a physical dwelling, also runs through both books. Cleaning and restoring a home represents a kind of rebirth for the characters as they peel away layers of the past and forge a new future. In Shamrock and Lotus, Brigid cleans and restores Padmaj's ransacked home to help heal their relationship, "to make amends with him and with herself by cleaning, and arranging, and sorting, and fixing things in the material world. She had always been able to act in the world in ways that were healing."
For Cami, in The Life You've Imagined, each layer of dirt removed and paint added to her childhood home brings her closer to her dead mother and gives her the strength to work her way out from under her father's thumb: "Disappearing under my roller are scuffs and scrapes, smears of unknown origin, a sheen of dirt and neglect" and, later, "It takes me all afternoon, but I take everything out of the cupboards and scrub until my fingers ache and my arms feel weak....The whole place smells vaguely of lemon, and the empty cupboards seem inviting, as if no one lives here anymore and they're waiting for a fresh start."
Both Steele and Riggle alternate viewpoints with each chapter, drawing readers more deeply into each character's life. Steele often replays the same scene from a different point of view, which gives the reader insight into how different people experience the same situation. The quirks and personalities of Riggle's characters are portrayed especially well through their own words, and the reader gains a window into each one's thoughts, memories, and the parts of themselves they withhold from each other.
Riggle's attention to small details and gestures brought me into the room with her characters; for instance, Maeve describes an interaction with Anna in this way: "She starts snapping her fingers at me, making scribbling gestures. I scramble in drawers until I come up with a geriatric ink pen and rip the cover off the phone book."
Steele's characters are reflective and philosophical, her book woven through with metaphors and moving insights. For instance, a nun says to Claire, "The yew, then, is a tree of new beginnings, of what springs fresh from each ending....It is a kind of hope and rebirth, this belief that the dead are still speaking, that trees grow from their mouths."
Both authors deftly weave social issues into their stories of personal struggle. Riggle's characters deal with class, gentrification, domestic violence, obesity and addiction, while Steele's characters are shaped by such disparate elements as the history of the Irish potato famine, the politics of international development, the personal consequences of environmental destruction, Hinduism, ancient Celtic religion and eating disorders.
While the characters in Shamrock and Lotus go through a crisis of earth-shattering magnitude that both tears them apart and, eventually, draws them closer together, those in The Life You've Imagined experience more domestic crises. In both books, however, it is in working through these crises that the characters also work through their past, make peace or let go, and find their way toward the future, as stronger people. Both novels would appeal to anyone navigating the complex relationship between mothers and daughters or among women friends, or indeed anyone who has stood at the brink of mid-life, looked both forward and back, and wondered how to "go confidently in the direction of [their] dreams."