More than 40 years of history bookend a lifelong love affair with reading for the resilient heroine of Sullivan’s latest novel set in Harvester, Minnesota.
Nell Stillman gets the shock of her life when her husband, Herbert, dies at the age of 35, leaving Nell penniless. Sullivan (What a Woman Must Do, 2000, etc.) tempers the harsh realities of widowhood at the turn of the 20th century with the kindness of Nell’s small-town neighbors. The wealthy Lundeen family offers Nell a job as a public school teacher, while Nell’s younger cousin, Elvira, moves in to help her care for her infant son. The rest of the book covers Nell’s life from that point until her death many years later, which is foretold in an obituary in the first chapter. Nell’s friends and family members precede her in death as they would in real life—some get sick, some go off to war, and others drop dead without any foreshadowing. In the works of British novelist P.G. Wodehouse, however, Nell discovers a “world that provided all that the so-called real world withheld—most especially, friends who didn’t leave.” With all the buildup, a more detailed discussion of Wodehouse's novels would have been appreciated. But Nell's enthusiasm for his books evokes a simpler time when reading and friendship could ward off despair. Nell manages to find hope—even love—in every stage of her life, the most satisfying of which is her interaction with her favorite author.
Nell’s life experiences read like her book collection—some are part of a series, some stand alone, and all are ultimately comforting and timeless.