In this novel about an emotionally stunted widow, Parrish (Women Within, 2017, etc.) offers a quiet, fractured study of mourning.
When Lavinia Starkhurst hears that her wealthy husband, Chip, has died in a freak accident, she initially thinks it’s a joke: “I’m just standing here waiting for the punch line,” she tells her husband’s best friend, the bearer of bad news. It’s a fitting start to this inscrutable novel, which examines the emotional confusion of losing a loved one. Lavinia, in denial about her grief, becomes prone to tears, off-putting jokes, and having one drink too many on an empty stomach. Parrish is an exacting writer who drops keen observations (“She felt haunted, not by Chip's ghost, but by her own cruelty”) that make Lavinia’s sudden bouts of weeping especially startling. Chip was Lavinia’s second husband, and his death leaves her struggling with feelings for her alcoholic ex, Potter. On a whim, she decides to take a cross-country trip from her home in upstate New York to California, much to the concern of her friends and family. Parrish writes about roadside motels and dime-a-dozen diners with a warmth that contrasts sharply with Lavinia’s sterile home life. Readers will almost feel the wind in the protagonist’s hair as she sets off for adventure. On the road, she meets a somewhat expected array of characters down on their luck, and she’s quick to come to their monetary aid. The most effective moments come when she’s vulnerable with strangers, as when she spends time in Montana reconnecting with Potter’s sister, Patty. At one point, Lavinia endures a last-minute invitation to a funeral, where she’s confused for someone else, revealing just how precarious her identity is. Lavinia’s trip is marked by impulsive decisions and dropped plotlines, making the whole affair feel like a woozy fever dream. However, readers are rewarded with further study of Lavinia and her past lives, drawing the emotionally distant widow into sharper focus.
A meandering tale made enjoyable by the author’s rich renderings of characters and their quirks.