Everything about the blurb for this book screamed "read me" to me. And who am I to ignore such strident and impassioned hollering? I would have missed out on a delightful and fantastic book if I had turned a deaf ear. Sadly, I think I am not as persuasive though since I highly recommended this one to my WNBA group (the book association, not the basketball organization) last month at our annual summer reads meeting. When I tried to describe a novel about a college professor who has been closed off to people and life moving from the anonymity of New York City to a small New England town, getting involved in the lives of the people there, and buying an old Victorian to bring back to life, one of the other members asked if there was a hunky handyman involved. I had to say yes. Then I fumbled around to try and explain that this book was not as cliched as her laughing question implied. As a matter of fact, this novel is not that book at all. Yes, there is an attractive handyman who plays a major role in the story but this is about so much more than a relationship between a man and a woman, with all its attendant ups and downs. It is a novel about one woman's relationship to life, overcoming her fear of attachment, and embracing that second chance.
Joy Harkness is a college English professor who jumps at the chance to move from New York City to the smallish town in Massachusetts that is home to Amherst. She is taking advantage of an offer to work with a renowned educator who has ideas on ways to shake up and improve 100-fold the way in which we teach, an all-encompassing and inter-departmental plan. As the project starts rolling, Joy herself learns to engage and integrate, losing her aloofness, grudgingly at first but more and more openly and appreciatively as time goes on. She is taken under the wing of one of her colleagues, develops a friendship with her realtor, and really comes out of her shell.
When she moved to Amherst, Joy impulsively bought an old Victorian that most people would have considered a tear-down. But something about the bones and lines of the old house enchanted her, giving her a sense of possibility and so mindful of all the renovation needed, Joy couldn't walk away from the house. Everyone in town told her that Teddy was the person she wanted to work on the house and despite the fact that he strikes her as rather eccentric and child-like, she hires him. Soon they slide into a relationship, with Teddy painstakingly re-awakening the house to its former glory just as Joy herself is undergoing a remarkable transformation.
The house serves as a metaphor throughout the book for the changes and improvements in Joy's life. The bones and important bits were always there waiting to be uncovered and highlighted. But this is not a book where a good man comes along and the female main character is suddenly happy and fulfilled. Joy's burgeoning relationships with Josie and Donna and her inclusion and involvement with the close-knit community are a major reason for her blooming as well. And that's really what the book is about: relationships of all kinds, the nurturing and care that goes into maintaining them, and the importance of having connections in your life. Teddy, as a character, in many ways highlights Joy's character flaws. Ironically, while having great insight into what makes her tick and the protective measures she's erected to stay aloof from life, Teddy has no clarity about his own life and situation.
Joy did start off as rather cold and dismissive. She snipes at the homey atmosphere in Josie's office. She is snarky about the single men who each in turn take her out. She rebuffs students and colleagues when they come to her home. But Meier, in drawing such a character, has managed to keep a kernel of likability in her so that when Joy starts her slow metamorphosis, it is completely believable and the reader applauds, coming to have more and more sympathy with Joy as the pages turn. The secondary characters of Josie and Donna are well drawn and individual. Teddy is by turns adult and childish and his willful blindness can be incredibly aggravating but this doesn't detract from the "realness" of his character. The writing here is smooth and the story is engaging and I will continue to recommend it to friends, even if there is a cute handyman who renovates the house because it is so much more than that.
Thanks to Leah for sending me a review copy of this book.