“In summer the trees are full, but in fall they drop their leaves, and the valley surrounding land crouches below the house like a cat before it springs. If someone searched very hard, they could just see, from that attic window, the things they hold most dear: the faintest glint of sunlight on water, the white, circling wings of gulls; the remote, unreachable face of the woman they love, telescoping away into darkness.”
As a reviewer, I tried desperately to keep my head about myself as I swam in Liz Michalski’s beautiful novel Evenfall, an un-biased, unsentimental capture of it being my goal …but as a reader, I completely dissolved under its spell and utterly failed to keep my wits. When you read it, you’ll see that I really had no choice. It had me.
And so, I must present a review of Evenfall much in the way that Jane Austen presented A History of England, as a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant assessor.
The back of the book would have you believe that the story is about ghosts, one in particular actually, that tries to win back the only woman who ever mattered to him even as he floats around in an amorphous almost-existence. In reality, the ghost character isn’t much of a character at all, and is essentially used as a way to look at the lives of two women from a third person perspective. The ghost (Frank is his name) spends most of the book in the attic of Evenfall, the old family stead of the Murphys in rural Connecticut. The house itself seems to stand as a person, having witnessed the lives of each family member with more clarity than most, along with a cat who fends off the loneliness of an aging woman, and Nina the dog, who is Frank’s biggest fan.
No, the story is really about Gert and Andie. Tough as nails and seasoned in World War II as a nurse, Gert lives only footsteps away from Evenfall where she’s spent 40 years watching her sister live out the life she should’ve had, with the partner she should’ve had. Regretful and bitter, Gert is forced to face the past when Andie, her niece, returns home to help bear the burden of cleaning up the Murphy family mess. Andie isn’t so keen on spending a summer stuck in hicktown, even though she’s running from a few of her own demons (including a pressed-shorts-wearing, expensive-car-driving dandy of a man with a toxic personality and an endless track record of infidelity). These two women have to figure out how to move forward in summer, move forward in life, move forward as family while coming to terms with their past decisions. We all suffer from it eventually: those pesky, nagging possibilities and consequences of the roads not taken. Roadnottakenitis maybe, a condition we all contract sooner or later. Gert and Anide face it amidst an interesting cast of characters, including a grown up version of a boy Andie used to babysit and a goat…or two. How will Gert and Andie face their pasts? Their mistakes? What does it all mean? By the time the end of the book is looming you realize that, just like in your life, there really are no answers. Your choices are half chance, just like Gert’s, Andie’s, and everyone else’s.
Michalski weaves a story that positively drips with the hopelessness of summertime romance, the sadness of a life lived under the guise of joy, the true emptiness that fills the soul when it discovers that it can never rest. The prose is beautiful. Poetic, really. The book itself is beautiful. Tranquil and moving. Evenfall was a lovely vision of summer-soaked humanity, with our sweaty brows and unspoken affections, and truly a sight to behold.
5 out of 5 Stars
Evenfall, by Liz Michalski
Penguin Group (2011)
Trade paperback (336) pages
Cover image courtesy of Penguin Group © 2011; text Shelley DeWees © 2011, Austenprose.com