Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for Walking with Elephants
Suze Wright is overwhelmed. Sure, it’s the 1990’s and, as a feminist, she bought the whole “I can bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan” message. But idealistic visions of “having it all” clash with the harsh realities of day-to-day life, leaving Suze exhausted, stressed, and feeling both unappreciated and unaccomplished.
Suze’s husband of 25 years, Bob, a university professor, plans to spend his six-month sabbatical in Australia. Declaring it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him, it is obvious that Bob has already accepted the invitation before discussing it with Suze. Although teeming with resentment, she does not give voice to her true feelings. Rather, she ponders how she will survive six months alone, shouldering all the responsibilities of running the household and caring for Ilana and David, their two youngest children. Skip, their eldest, has made plans to live closer to the college campus he attends.
The small publishing firm where Suze works as an editor has been acquired by a larger company. The subsequent reorganization results in the one coworker Suze completely disdains, Wanda, becoming her immediate supervisor. Worse, a new manager, Nat, has been brought in to oversee the department and the focus of the firm’s efforts has been completely revamped. When the new editorial assignments are announced, Suze is certain that her remaining tenure with the firm will be short: She is being put in charge of procuring and editing books about art, a topic Suze knows nothing about. Convinced the assignment is a strategic and calculated move by Wanda to ensure Suze’s failure so that Wanda can have the pleasure of firing her, Suze is comforted and assisted by her good friend and fellow editor, Elliott.
Ironically, Suze’s first love, David Braemer, has, in the years since their college romance, become an internationally successful and quite famous artist. David broke Suze’s heart when she wanted their relationship to progress toward commitment. David wanted to remain an unattached, free spirit. So they went their separate ways. As she was recovering from the break-up, Suze met Bob and married him after a very short courtship. Although Suze has been happy in her marriage to Bob, she never forgot David or their painful breakup. She never told Bob about David, even when she named their second son after him.
Suze attends a gathering at her best friend Marcia’s home where a psychic tells her to “[p]ay attention to the coincidences in your life, for they are more than coincidences. Sometimes, even though we seem able to adjust to change, we do not really address the issues the change brings.” For Suze, it seems that her life is comprised of nothing but a series of coincidences from that point on, starting with her attendance with Bob at a college function where she unexpectedly comes face to face again with David Braemer himself. Commissioned to create a work of art for the college, David seems as happy to see Suze as she is to be reunited with him after so many years. She wonders if he still finds her attractive, because Suze definitely finds him even more handsome and appealing than when he was a young art student. But Suze is happily married to Bob, isn’t she? Surely their marriage will withstand their six-month separation during Bob’s sabbatical . . . or will it?
Female readers will relate to first-time novelist Karen S. Bell’s protagonist, Suze Wright. Now in her 40’s, Suze is exhausted — physically, emotionally, and psychologically — from the demands of her life. She stayed at home with her children while they were young, returning to the workforce as a low-paid editor with a small publishing house only after the kids were in school and becoming increasingly responsible and independent. Suze feels that she is far behind the other women in the workforce who did not take a child-rearing hiatus, observing that she has lived her life backwards. Other women establish themselves in their career before taking a break to care for their children, but Suze wants the secure career that other women her age have already cemented for themselves.
Anyone who has ever worked for a duplicitous, untrustworthy, politically-motivated boss such as Wanda will also relate to Suze’s dismay upon learning that Wanda has been promoted and will be serving as her immediate supervisor. With her helmet-like hair and horrific fashion choices, Wanda is both a hysterically funny supporting character and a fear-inducing one. Readers will cheer Suze on as she tries to figure out Wanda’s “game” — it is obvious that Wanda is scheming to make sure that Suze fails — in time to save her job.
Readers who have been married or in relationships for a long time will also understand Suze’s frustration with Bob. Of course, readers will probably also be frustrated with Suze, who seems able to tell anyone and everyone except Bob, especially her best friend Marcia, about her dissatisfaction with him. Suze and Bob have fallen into a comfortable, reliable routine founded upon their children’s needs and the fact that Bob has always been the primary breadwinner. Although Suze has returned to the workforce, she is not the predominant wage-earner and she obviously has not worked out with Bob the fact that he needs to step up and assume more household responsibilities if both partners are going to work full time. Bob is operating on auto-pilot, content to let Suze shoulder the bulk of the burdens associated with keeping their home functioning, as well as taking care of the children’s needs. He is obviously so content with the way the two of them have structured their relationship that he feels comfortable accepting an offer to spend a six-month sabbatical in Australia without even asking Suze for her feelings on the subject. Yes, Bob is hapless and thoughtless, but Suze is equally culpable, especially when she does not immediately voice her feelings. How many marriages at or nearing the quarter-century mark suffer from the same type of communication issues? Probably most. So Suze and Bob seem like our next-door neighbors or even — God forbid! — us. Bell has flawlessly captured their yin and yang, ebbs and flows, resentments and comfortableness with each other.
Enter David. The one who got away. The one Suze has always kept hidden in her heart, completely unaware that Bob has actually known about their relationship all along. David tempts Suze to stray from her established, familiar life in search of . . . what exactly? Sexual passion? She has a satisfying, if no longer new and adventurous sexual relationship with her husband. Validation? Obviously, Suze wants to know if David still finds her attractive after so many years or if he now views her merely as a middle-aged wife and mother of three whose body increasingly surrenders to the pull of gravity. Escape from complacency? Adventure? David represents all of the unanswered questions that Suze has not really dared to even pose until they are reunited. Seeing him again, Suze cannot help but wonder what might have happened if only the events of so many years ago had been slightly different.
Indeed, through Suze and David’s renewed relationship, Bell gives her readers a vicarious glimpse at the answer to some of those questions that linger in the back of everyone’s mind. After all, most of us have a long-ago love that we think about from time to time, wondering how his/her life turned out and whether he/she is happy and successful. Few of us ever come face-to-face with that person, however, much less have the chance to converse about the relationship that, for whatever reason(s), did not last. Wanting to learn what answers Suze finds as she works with David on the book he agrees to produce, thereby saving her career, keeps the pages turning furiously.
Bell’s first novel could benefit from some judicious editing. If one adjective is good, three are not necessarily better, and the book is, unfortunately, replete with punctuation errors that detract from its enjoyment. There is also some gratuitous profanity that could easily be redacted since it adds nothing to the story or characterizations. The pacing is a bit jerky, with the action bogging down in spots as Suze ponders her next move.
Even if the ending is obvious from the start, Bell can be forgiven for that, as well as the fact that she does allow David to take on a bit too much of the knight-on-a-white-steed persona. Suze’s journey is empathetic, enjoyable, and sometimes hilarious, especially as to the believable, long-standing friendship between Suze and her soap opera writer and love-starved friend, Marcia, and the silliness involving the two of them and Eleanor, who claims to channel a spirit guide named Juno. Bell gets demerits, though, for Suze’s unsophisticated and, in 2011, plainly offensive response to her sudden understanding that her good friend and colleague, Elliott, is gay.
And what of the title? Suze writes a column for a magazine in which she argues for a matriarchal, rather than patriarchal, society. “Women are the nurturers of life and always have been,” she observes. She also explains that some animals exist within matriarchies. “A herd of elephants is only females and their young. The wise elder matriarch passes down the secrets and the customs. She remembers everything and keeps the herd alive.” Ultimately, Suze realizes just how full her life really is and that she has much to thankful for. What really matters is that she has built a life with Bob, and, in doing so, she has accomplished something valuable and lasting. She is the matriarch, passing down the secrets and customs, keeping her family alive and flourishing. Through her experiences in the workplace, reunion with David, and relationship with Bob and their children, Suze finally understands that hers is a worthwhile, even enviable identity. Eat your heart out, Wanda!
Overall, Walking with Elephants is a respectable, if not auspicious, start to Bell’s career as a fiction writer. I look forward to reading more of Bell’s work.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Walking with Elephants free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”