Hawkins’ third novel is a beautiful evocation of a death at midlife—at once elegant, melancholy and wise.
With shades of Mrs. Dalloway, much of the novel takes place in a day, as Lydia prepares for her annual winter party. The same group of women has been coming for years (except Norris, who makes barely plausible excuses), and Lydia worries over the usual: the food, the wine, the weather. But this will be her last party; she’s just been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and has but a few weeks to live. She struggles over a letter she plans to give each friend after dinner; a letter she writes and edits and is dissatisfied with because how can you explain all the disappointments of a lifetime in an uplifting farewell? She teaches art at a community college in the suburbs of Chicago, but really she wanted Norris’ life. Years ago, Lydia and Norris were colleagues, but thanks to Lydia’s mentorship (and, admittedly, Norris’ own icy determination), Norris has become a world-renowned painter while Lydia gave up long ago. And Lydia had men, too many of the wrong kind. And she had fears of making the wrong choices and so made too few important ones. And now she knows it is too late for anything; there is no more time to be the person she imagined. As she prepares for the party, her guests get ready as well: Elaine is bitter and alone and spreads acrimony like ruined pixie dust; still beautiful Maura loses herself in reveries of Roy, the married man she devoted her life to for a once-a-week “date”; Celia is married with a teenage son but is perpetually surprised that family life is so tedious. And then there is Norris, whom everybody hates but Lydia, and even Lydia hates her a little bit, too. Hawkins smartly continues the novel after the party, after Lydia’s death, after Norris begins a grand portrait series of the women, and the plot takes a number of unexpected, hugely enjoyable turns.
It is this kind of book: the kind one buys extra copies of to pass out to friends.