This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

  • By Jonathan Evison
  • Algonquin Books
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Monica Hogan
  • October 6, 2015

Walking game-show style through her past, a woman is forced to recount the many roads not taken.

With her husband dearly departed and her best friend confined to a nursing home, 78-year-old Harriet Chance should consider herself lucky to be spry enough to enjoy a surprise Alaskan cruise. Besides, she can use the time to reflect on how her life measures up to expectations while an unnamed narrator emcees the proceedings.

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! bounces across far-flung years as haphazardly as a game of pinball. The technique can seem disorienting until the reader accepts the challenge to follow the story wherever it ricochets. The structure roughly mirrors that of the 1950s television show “This Is Your Life,” which surprised participants, ready or not, with impromptu biographies fleshed out with appearances by family, friends, and colleagues.

Some may balk at the author’s use of the second- and third-person points of view, which distances Harriet from the reader and prevents us from getting too close, but it succeeds in reinforcing the notion that the main character has given up control over her own narrative.

Harriet has been fighting others’ expectations since coming of age in Seattle in the 1950s. She is groomed to follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue a professional career, but when she reaches adulthood, she becomes a wife and mother instead while sending her imaginary alter ego into the workforce.

Throughout the book, Harriet quietly nurses the suspicion that people misjudge her — quietly being the operative word. The narrator wonders why Harriet stays voiceless rather than expressing her wants and needs, which raises the question: Can a repressed person like Harriet be the hero of her own story if she remains powerless?

To answer “no” is to underestimate both Harriet and author Jonathan Evison.

Harriet comes close to grabbing the reins of her life when she returns to work after her first child starts school. But when she finds herself pregnant with an unwanted second, she curses the slow pace of the women’s movement and its attendant lack of choice. She takes out her misplaced contempt — which feels both profound and warranted — on her new daughter. It will take decades of false starts before Harriet can begin to heal the relationship with her child, a recovering alcoholic who developed a taste for wine after discovering her mother’s own secret stash.

Invariably, the people Harriet holds in highest esteem are the ones who most deeply betray her — her innocence, loyalty, trust, friendship, and love. When the heartbreaks are revealed one by one, they resonate as both shocking and anticipated. Such is the mastery of Evison’s storytelling.

For example, a villainous family friend saves a young Harriet only to exploit her as she grows. And there’s a poignancy in Harriet’s delayed reaction to her children’s schemes for her sprawling suburban home that calls to mind the pathos of the 1937 movie “Make Way for Tomorrow.” But perhaps the biggest gut-punch comes when Harriet stifles her daughter’s voice and robs her of choices in an echo of the way Harriet’s own mother treated her.

There are plenty of tragic decisions and bad acts to go around — so many that it’s hard to find a hero among the villains — but there are also enough small moments of grace to remind us why, like the handicapped bird she encounters during her travels, Harriet finds life worth hobbling through all the way to the end.

As other authors before him — including Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass), Alice McDermott (Someone), Meg Wolitzer (The Interestings), and John Updike (Seek My Face) — have done, Evison tackles aging characters’ laments while also capturing the scope of change in the transition from the 20th to 21st centuries. This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! gives a nod to present-day woes, ranging from global warming to upside-down mortgages, but doesn’t gloss over angst from bygone days.

At the end of her marriage, Harriet is helpless to prevent her husband Bernard’s decline into senility and fails to provide the burial he’d wanted. To make amends, she plans to take his ashes to the ends of the earth, but before she can accomplish this, her spouse of nearly 60 years returns from the dead for a goodbye of his own.

(The chapters seen through Bernard’s eyes, in which he speaks to a heavenly chief transitional officer akin to Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” are sufficiently different in tone from the others that the reader is left to suspect they’re hallucinations.)

Through conversations (real or imagined) with her deceased husband, Harriet offers him forgiveness for a seemingly unforgiveable act. And although Bernard cannot reciprocate by giving his wife a tidy resolution, too, Evison succeeds in giving Harriet’s life story the satisfying send-off it deserves.

Monica Hogan has worked as a journalist in New York, Philadelphia, and suburban Washington, DC. She is currently working on a novel set in baby-boom-era Detroit.

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