A Year By The Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman by Joan Anderson

Ever since I finished Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, I’ve found myself craving nonfiction because I really wanted Remarkable Creatures to be nonfiction instead of historical fiction.  It put me in a mood to read a memoir or two, so when I went to the library last, I looked around the biography section for something to catch my eye.  I’m not sure what it was exactly about A Year By the Sea that drew me to the cover, except I’m being drawn to these light blue covers prominently featuring a beach.  I didn’t know who Joan Anderson is or why I should care about her year by the sea, but by the end, I became very emotionally invested in Anderson’s story.

The thing is, the description of this book would normally make me put it down and keep looking.  I often find it hard to understand or sympathize with books about older women who leave their husbands who haven’t cheated on them or really done anything wrong; they are just tired of their life so they pick up and move on instead of trying to work on it and understand why they feel the way they do.  Often I feel that the women (and men) portrayed in novels and nonfiction who do that come across as selfish.  I think a lot of this prejudice comes from reading Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, a book I despised.  Fortunately, Joan Anderson’s A Year By the Sea was not a nonfiction version of Fear of Flying, it was nothing like it.  It was incredibly honest and eye-opening about the life of an older woman who has given her entire life to her family, only to find that she needs to spend some time learning about herself.

When her husband receives a job offer across the country, Joan simply says she does not want to move with him.  She is surprised at how easy it is to say and how easy it is to sell her house with her husband and move into their Cape Cod cottage by herself in September, when most people are leaving for the winter.  Joan spends a year by the sea, just as the title suggests, mostly thinking and rediscovering herself.  Most of the time she is completely alone, left to figure everything out, though she does meet some interesting people along the way.

What I was expecting was not necessarily what I got.  I saw a lot of myself in Joan and she made me think a lot about the way I see myself.  I’m not sure I can articulate what usually bothers me about stories where one person leaves a marriage, but I think it is incredibly difficult for a young person to stand on the other side of making the commitment of marriage with someone to understand what that would be like.  What an entire life with someone is like.  I think it’s also terrifying to sit and think, they were once like me, in love and eager to begin life together, and now they have ended up like this.  Is that my fate, too?  I like to think it isn’t, so I don’t necessarily like to read novels and nonfiction that tell me otherwise.

But A Year By the Sea was different.  Joan explained her situation and reflected on her life in such a way that it was all very clear.  Joan, for all the self-discovering she did throughout the book, seems to understand herself better than most.  At some point she meets a woman in her 90s also named Joan who eventually becomes a sort of mentor to the author.  I felt much the same way about the Joan who wrote this book.  She was talking directly to me, explaining that sometimes you need to spend some time to figure yourself out and the only mistake you can really make is thinking you’re always a complete, finished person.  You’re not; we are constantly shifting to understand ourselves better and to make ourselves better people.

This is a book that I can see myself buying and rereading when I need a little reminder to take life slowly and as it comes, to focus on myself once in a while and to not lose sight that I am a constantly changing person and that is okay.  When I looked this book up, I learned that there are three follow up books, something I was very excited to see.  One chronicles the next year, when Joan and her husband move back in together to work on their marriage. The second turns A Year By the Sea into a self-help kind of book, that I’m not exactly sure I’m interested in reading.  But, I’m especially interested in A Walk By the Sea, a book that focuses completely on Joan Erikson, the older woman Joan met on one of her walks through Cape Cod.

Maybe I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, but something about it spoke to me completely.  Were there times when Joan was frustrating and even a little selfish?  Yes.  Were there moments when I didn’t understand her motivations and I sympathized with her husband?  Absolutely.  But Joan puts everything out there.  She is unsure of everything she is doing, but she is prepared to find out if it’s the right thing.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

I used to feel sad on New Year’s Eve, clinging to the old year, never wanting it to be over.  I avoided good-byes for the same reason, clinging to what was, simply because it was known, whereas the future was unknown and therefore to be worried over.  How much fear has controlled my life.  No longer!

My cheeks sting, and my fingers prickle.  I duck into a nearby watering hole and order hot cider, comfortable this day sitting among strangers.  I pat my firm thighs and promise to banish further negative thinking.  Smug about my New Year’s resolutions, I raise my glass to being big, beautiful, feminine, and forever changing, promising to work with my bones and flesh.  After all, bones make new bones if they are exercised, skin sheds itself to make room for fresh flesh, muscles untangle and restore their strength.  I truly have rejoined the human race.  (91)

I’m learning that what’s important is not so much what I do to make a living as who I become in the process.  Simple labor is smoothing my edges, teaching me to crave work not just because it might make me special or wealthy but because the job pleases my spirit, makes me a more pleasant person, and meets my immediate financial needs.  (133)

“I shall miss having secrets,” I told Joan recently.

“Ah, but you must always retain some part of yourself which is nobody’s business.  The minute you let others in on your secrets, you’ve given away some of your strength.”

Here, where much more is hidden than apparent, I am reminded that a companion to mystery is peace; that knowing less and wondering more offers expectancy.  It has become my way to dispense with incessant seeking in favor of stumbling upon answers.  In the words of Picasso, “I find, I do not seek.” No longer desperate to know every outcome, these days I tend to wait and see, a far more satisfying way of being that lacks specificity and instead favors experience over analysis. (164)

I am utterly content, tranquil in my aloneness, serene.  Joan once told me that the root word in Greek for “alone” means “all one.”  That is precisely what I am experiencing, a sense of that sort of wholeness.  (169)

I picked this book up at just the right time.   I’m looking forward to Joan’s other books.

So go read this!: When you need it.  This is another one that I can’t tell you when to read it, maybe you need to just discover it on the shelves for yourself.

Other reviews: Book Girl’s Nightstand, Puss Reboots.

TSS – In which I get much too philosophical about book reviews

I just finished (and loved) A Reliable  Wife this morning and I’ve been sitting down and thinking about why I chose to read it.  A few months ago, this book was all over the blogs and most people were giving it rave reviews.  Everyone loved it (including me!) and talked about how engrossing it is (it is!) and how intense it is (it is!).  But when I was thinking about what eventually caused me to remember this book, when usually I forget books unless I write them down on my list, was not necessarily all of its rave reviews, but instead the impassioned negative reviews that eventually pushed me towards this excellent novel.

Sometimes, when there is nothing but praise about a book, it doesn’t necessarily make me want to read it.  No matter how  many people tell me The Help is awesome, I can’t bring myself to sit down and read it.  I really have zero idea why this is.  I’ve purchased the book, but every time I start it, I get bored and put it down.  The same thing happened with A Reliable Wife, five star after five star review did not get me interested, but those three or four negative reviews did.

I have two theories about this.  The first one is that, in my mind, a book that only gets good reviews is boring — there’s nothing in it to stir people to up, to make them question its greatness, no risks were taken.  I’m not saying that this is necessarily true, especially not of The Help (since obviously I can’t make a judgement about a book I haven’t read yet), but I would say that is generally a direction that my thoughts go in.  If there is no one that can question any single part of the book that has been written, then the author just didn’t do enough to make it worth reading.  Let me reiterate!  That’s not necessarily true with every book, but it’s something to consider.  Eventually, if a book has been universally loved, I get to it and I either love it or I don’t.

And that brings me to my second theory.  If I do begin that book that everyone loves, what happens if I am the sole curmudgeon on the planet who didn’t like it?  What if I am the one that has to do all the questioning and in the process step on many toes to get there?  What if it is just some flaw in me as a reader that I don’t love a book that has been so universally praised?  I begin to question not what is wrong with the book, but instead what is wrong with me. Now, I realize that that kind of makes me a coward, unafraid to step forward and have a different opinion than the masses, but I’m trying to be perfectly honest here.   If there are other people who have disliked a book, then I am in the free and the clear to dislike it as well.

The whole purpose of a book review is to influence people.  It’s to say, “Hello, I loved this book, I hope you will too!”  Or, “Please don’t waste your time on this one like I did.”  Hopefully, to be successful, both reviews are filled with the whys and the why nots.  But it is a nerve-wracking process, this influencing people.  What if I recommend a book that you end up hating?  What if I tell you not to read a book that would have been your favorite book of all time?  I worry about this!  Regularly!

But I keep reviewing books and obviously I’m not losing too much sleep over it since I slept a total of 10 hours last night.  In the end, I don’t think a negative review is a bad thing.  I think a mediocre review is much worse.  Strong emotion and passion, a prevalent theme in A Reliable Wife, whether that passion is positive or negative are much more powerful.  Sometimes, the truth of the matter is, that a negative review might just get me to read a book more than a positive review will.

Often, as reviewers, I think we feel bad about writing overly impassioned reviews.  Too much passion means that we can’t look objectively at something.  There are books that I am passionately in love with and books that passionately despise.  I love Time Traveler’s Wife, and even if it is flawed, that love is unconditional.  I despise Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying with such an intense hatred that trying to convince me of its merits will do little to change my opinion of it.  I’d be lying if I said that I wished every book created such passion in me, because I think it would get exhausting.   But we shouldn’t be afraid of that passion; a passionate book review, filled with love or hatred, should be our favorite kinds of book reviews, because it means there’s something in the book worth reading.

Maybe none of this  is exactly revolutionary, but my basic point is that it’s not always going to be the positive after the positive that gets a book talked about, that gets a book read.  It’s not always going to be the talking points that matter.  Sometimes it is our gut reaction to a book, those things that make us question the very purpose of a book, that lead to greatness.  I really disliked the novel Disgrace by JM Coetzee, and by disliked I mean hated, but at the same time, I do not deny that is powerful, haunting and disturbing.  Two years later, I have difficulty putting into words why I reacted so strongly against this book.  But, I think I’ve realized sometimes you don’t have to like a book to admit that it is great, you don’t have to enjoy a book to think that it is important or worthwhile.   I don’t think I would tell someone not to read Disgrace, but I would certainly try to prepare them for the intense emotion it gives its readers.

And then that just opens a whole other can of worms about the purpose of reading, but I think I’m going to leave that for another Sunday.