Monday, April 9, 2012

"Make It Stay," by Joan Frank

Joan Frank’s brief new novel, “Make It Stay” (Permanent Press, 2012) is a meditation on friendship, marriage, what changes and what doesn’t, aging, and mortality. The main characters are two couples portrayed over a period of decades: the narrator, named Rae, her Scottish husband Neil, Neil’s best friend Mike, and Mike’s wife Tilda. They live in an idyllic small town in Northern California, where Mike -- an outsized (physically and socially) character -- befriends Neil (along with everyone else around). Neil is grateful to Mike for “adopting” him when he first moved to the area. Rae likes Mike but is a little cautious around him, and also has to be careful not to criticize him to Neil. Tilda is a somewhat unreadable and odd character; she and Mike don’t seem to fit together, and she and Rae do not get along well, although they preserve an amicable surface with each other for the sake of their husbands. The story ends in loss and sadness, yet the surviving characters have learned to treasure the life they have and its reassuring pleasures and joys. There is a bit of mystery about some of the characters and events, but the main themes of the novel are the vagaries of friendship and marriage, and -- as reviewer Elizabeth Benedict wrote -- “the frightening fragility of life.” Nothing can, in the long run, "make it stay" the same; life marches on. The author is particularly good at portraying the ups and downs of marriage, and the wonderful comfort that a longtime marriage can provide, if one is fortunate. Although Rae married late, and initially felt the marriage was possibly a mistake, she grew into it. “Against ridiculous odds we became a thing: part him, part me. All I know is it had to do with time” (p. 12). As someone married a long time myself, this resonates with me. As an aside, I enjoyed -- in this novel as in Frank’s earlier fiction (see my posts of 7/6/10 and 7/11/10) -- the Northern California setting; although she creates a fictitious town, it is redolent of areas and towns north of San Francisco that I have visited.

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