The wife of a private school headmaster looks back at 50-plus years of marriage in this restrained yet emotionally powerful portrait of enduring love from Brown (The Rope Walk, 2007, etc.).
Ruth’s husband, Peter, now in his 70s, has dedicated his life, and hers, to Derry School, a Maine prep school for boys. As the novel opens, Ruth reflects on her life while preparing for the cocktail party she and Peter throw annually on the first evening of the new school year. After receiving his Ph.D. at Yale, Peter rejected seemingly more prestigious job offers because he appreciated Derry’s stated mission of teaching indigent boys. Fifty years later, the school has begun marketing to wealthier families to survive, but Peter remains a gentle idealist. Ruth finds Peter’s genuine goodness, his belief in God and his genial passivity both enviable and irksome since she remains filled with doubt and inner conflict. Raised by a single father who died in prison shortly after he was exposed as a murderer, Ruth has never found life easy, but she has experienced kindness and generosity, first from Peter’s doctor father, who took Ruth in after her own father’s arrest, and then from the Yale psychiatry professor and Holocaust survivor who became her closest friend and surrogate mother. Born into middle-class security, Peter has never lost his sense of optimism, not even after his mother’s mental illness and the crisis in his romance with Ruth that separated the two young lovers for several years until they reunited as college seniors. They have never been apart since. On the evening of the party, Peter has a stroke. He survives but must retire. That Peter has been beloved by his students has always been obvious, but Ruth finally realizes that her life at the school and with Peter has been richer than she realized.
A beautiful piece of writing: bittersweet with nostalgia, surprisingly sensual and sharply nuanced in its depiction of the strains and rewards that shape any long marriage.