Chances Are…

Do you have a friend you haven’t seen in years, yet when you finally get together, you fall into a comfortable conversation as though you had seen each other just yesterday?  Good friends are like that.

In Richard Russo’s Chances Are... three college friends reunite on Martha’s Vineyard after years apart, and find they connect as they had years earlier, with an easy camaraderie but haunted by the ghost of the woman they all loved.  The old Johnny Mathis song in the book title creates the theme for Richard Russo’s latest story of relationships as Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey struggle through a long weekend of memories and surprising revelations.

I always imagine Paul Newman as one of Russo’s character, reprising his role in the movie adaptation of Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool.” None of the three main characters in Chances Are seem to have Newman’s charisma but together they present a dazzling composite.  Lincoln is a successful realtor in Las Vegas, who has inherited the house on Martha’s Vineyard from his mother, and is now considering selling it. Teddy is owner of a small publishing house in upstate New York, who suffers from debilitating episodes.  Mickey, who went to Canada for a few years to avoid the Vietnam War draft, is a musician living on the island.

As their pasts are revealed, fathers figure prominently in their influence, all strangely different for each man, from Lincoln’s strict Calvinist father who tolerated no one, to Teddy’s pseudo intellectual father who had no time for anyone, to Mickey’s father of a large family who expected his youngest child and only son to follow his lead.  But the key character and major influence on the three college boys who bonded over working as hashers in a sorority house on campus was one of those sorority sisters – Jacy.  A seemingly free spirit, Jacy was the mascot to their group – their fourth Musketeer.

The mystery of Jacy’s disappearance years ago provides the suspense as the story evolves around the discovery of what really happened.  Russo delivers a surprising solution in his big reveal at the end of the novel, but the satisfaction of reading how each man developed and maintained a sense of community overwhelms the finale.

Russo, with acerbic wit and irreverence balances stories of his characters coming of age after college with their inevitable struggles as they are entering old age years later when they meet again. Their bond seems to have been the girl but Russo confirms they still have a strong connection beyond their youthful adoration of Jacy. They were there for each other as young men and Russo refreshes their connection years later.  Can their friendship last after all the secrets are revealed? Chances are their chances are awfully good…

City of Friends by Joanna Trollope

9781509823444_p0_v1_s192x300  Joanna Trollope first came to my attention seventeen years ago around the office water cooler.  Two high-ranking professional women were extolling Trollope’s knack for using domestic issues to highlight how to deal with people – chick lit for career minded intellectuals.  Now I get it; I finally got around to reading one of her books, her latest – City of Friends – Trollope’s twentieth novel.

The book revolves around four women – all friends since college days as economics majors, and all successful in their careers twenty years later, and, most importantly, all still in touch with one another.  If you have been fortunate to sustain a friendship over twenty years, you will understand the inordinate pleasure of having someone know your history but you will also know the conscious effort needed to stay connected through inevitable changes in lives.  Imagine multiplying all this by four.  Communication across two women is manageable, with three it gets a little harder, with four the possibilities for misunderstandings and crossed wires are inevitable.  Trollope juggles across the lives of these four friends, with the emphasis on the cost of a successful career for women in both friendship and family.

When Stacey, a private equity executive loses her job when she asks for more flexible hours to care for her mother who has dementia, the crisis triggers a string of confrontations with her friends: banker Gaby, academic Beth, and consultant Melissa, who have their own problems as they juggle family commitments and high-pressure careers. Trollope follows Melissa’s anxiety over her son reconnecting with his father (whom she never married), Beth’s betrayal by her lover Claire, and Gaby’s struggle with her stay-at-home husband.  While the plot sounds reminiscent of a Maeve Binchy drama, Trollope’s storytelling uses empathy and energy to  realistically reveal the serious underlying difficulties for women trying to combine family and career.  Of course, not all is heavy drama – who knew the most important tips for giving a good speech were to wear expensive shoes and not touch your hair.

Trollope’s story in City of Friends was a light pleasure – easy to read but with some substance.  In an interview Trollope stated:

“I really believe we learn more about the human condition from fiction than we do from anything else…I think novels help people survive…”

I’m glad I finally read one of Trollope’s books.  I will look for more.