Maggie Lewis is sixty-five years old and has just retired after a forty-year career as an elementary school librarian. She has come to Vashon Island near Seattle, accessible only by ferry, to live full-time in a rustic cabin with no window screens. Long divorced, her daughter and granddaughter live in California. Maggie has planned to spend the summer relaxing and adjusting to life sans responsibilities, contemplating how she wants to spend her retirement years before delving into new pursuits, perhaps including volunteer work.
Walter Hathaway is a renowned author of children’s books, including one that was successfully adapted for the big screen. He is a bit older than Maggie and decidedly crotchety. Although his cabin is near Maggie’s, their encounters are limited to terse, obligatory greetings. Each evening Walter loudly serenades his dog and only companion, Bill Bailey, with an off-key rendition of the song for which the dog, like several before him, is named. Maggie and Walter have a history that neither of them acknowledges.
As the story opens, Maggie notes an incessant, mournful wailing and must explore the source. She finds Bill Bailey howling outside Walter’s cabin and an injured Walter nearby. Maggie summons help and soon finds herself Bill Bailey’s caretaker as Walter is admitted to the hospital. The prospect of interacting with Walter is unappealing, but Maggie is curious about and drawn to the handsome older curmudgeon.
Walter’s Muse is a delightful tale about finding love “later” in life, told from a realistic, frequently humorous, and poignant point of view. A retiree residing on Vashon Island since 2004, acclaimed children’s author Jean Davies Okimoto’s transition into adult fiction seems effortless and virtually flawless.
Maggie is content. She is settling into the new chapter of her life on the tranquil island among good friends like Martha Jean, a fiercely independent woman of ninety plus who still lives alone while acknowledging that she is becoming quite forgetful, and Mark and Howie who have been a couple for nearly thirty years but still haven’t entirely been accepted by narrow-minded family members. Maggie is happy to trudge through the woods, take her kayak out each day, read good books, and keep in touch with her beloved ten-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, via Skype. Maggie plans to spend the summer resting and evaluating before launching into new ventures, romance the furthest thing from her mind. Always considered a “sturdy” woman, Maggie loves to curl up under blanket with a good book and read. Whatever happened with Walter is in the past. Or is it?
Walter is handsome and virile, but perpetually out of sorts and, perhaps, bitter. His is a solitary existence. An author of children’s books, he has come to live permanently on the island to maintain his sobriety and focus on writing, working with his long-time agent to get his next book published. But when he injures his arm and cannot type, he needs assistance. The teenage boy he initially hires does not work out and when he asks Maggie to step in, she finds it impossible to decline. After all, she loves children’s literature and the opportunity to watch a great author at work dictating and editing his next masterpiece is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
And so the two form a tenuous working partnership that unfolds in a charmingly entertaining fashion. Maggie and Walter are not youngsters — both bring plenty of life experiences, including some devastating disappointments, to the relationship. Both are at a point in their lives when they thought love and romance were far behind them. Both find it difficult to open up and express their emotions after guarding them for so many years, and both are anxious about the challenges of finding love at their ages. For instance, Maggie candidly ponders whether she wants to end up being a nursemaid to an older man as Walter struggles with health issues.
Okimoto also explores the troubled relationship between Maggie and her younger sister, Leslie, who, at fifty-five, suddenly decides to leave Los Angeles and take up residence on Vashon Island. Maggie resents a lifetime as Leslie’s caregiver and doormat, but, as with Walter, seems incapable of saying “no” to Leslie’s many demands. In the process, Maggie ends up saddled with Olivier, Leslie’s Siamese cat, with leaves her wondering how she managed to become the island’s designated pet-sitter.
Walter’s Muse begins frantically, but soon settles into a relaxed, enjoyable pace, in keeping with its setting. Whether Walter and Maggie’s tentative alliance will survive early challenges is the question that spurs readers to keep reading, but there are interesting supporting characters and related plot twists along the way. Walter’s Muse is a tender and satisfying homage to the idea that new beginnings are indeed possible — at any age.