Thursday, March 9, 2017

"All the News I Need," by Joan Frank

Joan Frank, a Northern California author whose work I like very much (see, for example, my posts of 7/11/10, 4/9/12, and 1/5/13) has published a new novel that focuses on aging and death, but especially aging. “All the News I Need” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is as thoughtful and understanding of human nature as I have found all of Frank’s work to be. Her two main characters are a rather prickly and snarky Fran, a fairly recent widow, and a shy gay man, Oliver, who has also suffered a major loss a few years before the story starts. Both are lonely, and almost by chance (Oliver was friends with Fran’s late husband), are each other’s best and almost only friends. But there are still issues between them, and although they care about each other, they don’t always understand or communicate very well with each other. Neither of them works, and they are both casting about for how to fill their time. Both feel old and left behind. On a whim, followed by detailed, almost obsessive preparation, they decide to take a trip to Europe together, a trip that is less than successful, although it has its moments. One thing I like about the novel is its setting (except for the Europe trip) in the San Francisco Bay area, and all the familiar details about the area. The main thing I don’t like – or rather that has me puzzled – is that these characters are cast as old, over the hill, yet it turns out that Oliver is only 62 and Fran 58. I understand very well that there are difficulties and issues with getting older, even in one’s 50s and 60s. But since neither of them has major health or financial problems, it seems strange to focus on their not-so-old ages as a period of decline and loss that leaves them feeling so bereft, so at sea. I don’t mean to question that the characters feel old and lonely, and as I said, they have both suffered losses, but the strong sense of, and focus on, aging seems a little exaggerated in their cases. Having said all this, I will say that the two characters, their histories, and their relationship are all beautifully and insightfully depicted. Although the story is a bit on the bleak side, it did draw me in.
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