Sometimes we get lucky and life presents with the opportunity for a “do-over” — a rarely bestowed second chance. It might be the prospect of a new job or career, moving into a different house, living in another city. It might even be that rarest of opportunity — the chance to salvage a relationship. Actor Harrison Ford once observed that “we all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance.”
English professor Joy Harkness is eager for change when recruited by Amherst College. After fifteen years as a professor at Columbia University, she is ready to leave her solitary life in New York City and begin a new chapter in Massachusetts. When her tiny New York apartment sells in four days, she iss dismayed to find few suitable housing options in her new home town. So she purchases a dilapidated, abandoned Victorian home and undertakes the daunting task of restoring it at the same time that she is settling into her new job and forming relationships with new colleagues. Luckily, Teddy Hennessy, a local handyman, is available to oversee the project and turns out to be a knowledgeable and talented renovator.
As Joy’s house comes back to life, so does she, learning for the first time the value of living among a community of true friends.
Diane Meier’s debut novel explores the evolution of a woman who, at the age of 48, has achieved enormous professional success, despite having emotionally shut down decades earlier. Meier understands New York City and the way millions of people live there anonymously for decades, immediately dispelling the Sex and the City-propelled myth that it is the city in which everyone eventually finds love and lives happily — and glamorously — ever after. After all, Meier’s protagonist in this story fled a four-year marriage and “pretty little starter house” in St. Louis to fulfill her lifelong dream of living in Manhattan at the age of thirty-one.
But seventeen years later, she was happy to leave behind an apartment that was, in its entirety, “roughly the size of the kitchen in the old Victorian” home she purchased in Massachusetts. Although the apartment had a “heart-stopping view of the Hudson, if one hangs out the window,” it was a walk-up and “[f]our flights up when you are thirty-four may seem like an adventure. Four flights up when you are forty-eight seems an increasingly steep Matterhorn.” Joy’s realization that her life in Manhattan was not going to be like her fantasy came quickly.
There was a television commercial for Chemical Bank on the air when I first arrived in which an attractive young woman purposefully made her way up Park Avenue. The camera caught her long stride to somewhere important. She ran a publishing company, I imagined. She designed jet engines. Her game farm in Africa bred white tigers. She commanded respect and used other people’s money. The tagline to the commcercial: “The New York Woman. When her needs are financial, her reaction is Chemical.”
I opened an account at Chemical Bank within days of landing in Manhattan. I wanted to be that woman. Four months after my move, Chemical merged with Manufacturers Hanover and my bank became known as Manny Hanny. In New York, I was always just a tad late for the party.
So Joy instead settled into a quiet life as a professor with only a couple of friends, no personal connections to or camaraderie with her coworkers, and an apartment into which she did not invite guests or host parties, where her late parents’ belongings remained stored in boxes. Her emotions remained in storage, as well.
Although ready, when offered the job at Amherst, to “run from New York and Columbia, like a hound at the drop of a hare,” Joy could not have imagined the myriad ways in which her life would change as she became acquainted with and formed attachments to her new coworkers and friends. At the outset of the story, Joy is a stereotypical intellectual who, for reasons that are revealed as the story unfolds, dissected her life decades earlier, leaving only her academic career examined and cultivated. Her personal life remained undeveloped, a fact Joy was aware of but unable and unwilling to face until thrust into “a warm cluster of women” where she had to either learn to fit in or remain an outcast. To choose the latter would, of course, result in career suicide, but Joy does not immediately embrace her new-found friends and colleagues. She remains guarded and aloof, only gradually learning to relate to other women as she realizes that, despite their apparent differences, they also have much in common.
Meier cleverly weaves the story of the renovation of Joy’s home with that of the revitalization of her spirit. Neither project proceeds without complication, however. And both turn out to be much more difficult tasks than they first seemed. However, as the house’s wiring, plumbing, and floors are repaired and bolstered, so is Joy’s determination to succeed in her new environment. As the walls of her home take on color and the home’s true architectural splendor is unveiled, Joy’s raw emotions are also peeled away layer by layer, revealing to the reader why she closed herself off from other people for so many years.
There are moments when Joy is an exasperating character, behaving like an out-of-control, hormonal teenager in need of a “snap out of it” slap akin to the one Cher leveled on Nicholas Cage’s cheek in the classic scene from Moonstruck. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that she is experiencing a sort of delayed adolescence. Her relationship with a fellow professor, Will, is particularly painful to watch from a distance, its inevitable outcome obvious to all except Joy. Just like a parent, the reader is forced to sit back and allow her to make her own mistakes, and subsequently applaud when she learns from them.
There to support and assist her with the renovation of her home and life is Teddy, a mama’s boy in his mid-thirties with his own collection of emotional bruises. Teddy is the charming, irresistible man-boy who personifies the future — and all of its untapped potential. Most women in Joy’s age range recall a man like Teddy somewhere in their past and, for that reason, he is the most intriguing, interesting character in the book — with the exception of his mother, Maureen. With Teddy, Joy learns, for the first time, how to love another person, but her hopes and dreams for and about Teddy do not always align with his self-image and goals. “I didn’t know I’d given up,” Joy notes. But she had given up on many aspects of her life and it is her relationship with Teddy that shows her it is never too late to find happiness and fulfillment.
While one reviewer was repulsed by the maternal overtones of Joy’s relationship with Teddy, I viewed her relationship with him as an expression of a previously-suppressed desire to nurture. After all, Joy completed her education and enjoyed a successful career culminating, to date, not only in a full professorship at Columbia University, but the publication of four books. But she chose to leave her only marriage and never had children, instead living her life alone in a huge city, surrounded on all sides at all times by strangers from whom she shielded the details of her life and herself. It seemed logical to me that, having reached a juncture in her life where she is finally feeling her emotions for the first time in her adult life and learning, albeit reluctantly at first, to connect with others on a visceral level, her instinctual ability to care for another person would blossom and mature.
And I found Joy and Maureen, two female literary archetypes, fascinating as they interacted both with Teddy and each other, their behavior fueled, in part, by their own needs and limitations.
Teddy represents the “what if . . . ” and “if only . . . ” moments the reader brings to the pages from her own life, along with the hope that Joy and Teddy’s story will have a happy ending. Teddy is the embodiment of what second chances are all about vis a vis relationships — the “do-over” you would love to be offered if only the conclusion could be different the second time around.
Ultimately, Joy removes her belongings and those of her parents, from the boxes where they have been stored and places them on display in her new home where, at last, she is able to use, enjoy, and appreciate them. As she embraces those mementos from her past, she also extracts her feelings out of the dark, secluded place where she has hidden them away for so many years. She is pulled, unwillingly at first, into a family of friends and colleagues that is unlike any family she has ever known. And she gradually learns to care for and appreciate those folks, with all of their flaws and eccentricities, as well.
The book concludes, although Joy’s journey clearly does not.
I was getting used to having guests. My brunch recipe file was growing, and the design and layout of my house seemed to support friends who could look after themselves or share activities with equal grace. I found that I was especially valuing the exchange of ideas that only comes with intimacy and conversations allowed to drift over days, to be reconsidered over dinner, over tea, after the afternoon walk, settled only when a larger truth or greater insight might emerge. Nothing buys this luxury but time and proximity in an unhurried house on a quiet weekend. How lucky am I to have found it.
Some might read and enjoy The Season of Second Chances as merely an entertaining story of a woman who changed her life and had some interesting experiences along the way. But I suspect that most women like me — the character of Joy’s contemporaries — will not. For those of us who lived through the Women’s Movement, Meier’s writing conjures up not just memories of our own adolescence and young adulthood, but empathy for and identification with Joy’s struggle to reconcile her professional and personal lives.
Others have referred to this as a “coming-of-age” story, but I reject that description because that phrase is so overused I’m no longer sure exactly what it means. Rather, I view it as a “coming-into-oneself” story about a woman who, in her youth, had many options and is now evaluating the weight and outcome of the choices she made back then as she heads into a new phase of her life where she seeks peace, solace, and a sense of permanency and belonging she has never allowed herself to experience. Meier posits that “the tools used in getting ahead in the first half of our lives may have been too limited. There are so many more options — not only in what we do, but in how we feel about what we do. We can learn and grow and find fulfillment that seemed to elude us, not just with a change of jobs but, far more importantly, with a change of attitude.”
Witty, crisp dialogue, believable characters, and unpredictable plot turns made The Season of Second Chances a delightful read.