Two friends in their early 70s share the joys and pains of growing old in backwoods Montana in this novel.
When they were in their 20s, Ida and Martha spent time together in a commune in Kansas. After becoming close friends, they drifted apart, each to lead starkly different lives—“like the country mouse and the city mouse,” as Martha remarks. Ida put down roots in Boulder, Colorado, working in an oncology ward and developing a hospice program, and Martha devoted herself to raising horses. When Martha learns that Ida’s husband has died, the two friends reconnect, resulting in Ida’s decision to join Martha in rugged Montana. Ida helps out at the family guest ranch, which is run by Annie, Martha’s daughter (“The ranch nestled between two mountain ranges in Big Sky country—the Gallatins to the east and the Madisons on the west. In the distance, a curtain of Douglas firs edged the perimeter of the ranch, indicating where the foothills began their ascent”). Ida and Martha live together in the nearby cottage, where they have protracted conversations about friendship, love, aging, and death. But the course of Ida’s life changes once again when an unexpected romance flourishes. Fretz-Goering (Simple Life Fretz, 2016) is an eloquent writer who captures Montana’s wild beauty with elegance and alacrity: “The snow layers were light and powdery this early in the season….A gibbous moon hung low in the sky, balancing atop a mountain peak.” But the author’s handling of dialogue is less impressive; it is stiff and unnatural. When discussing grief, Ida comments: “You know how grief is. Finds a place to settle down deep in your soul and then saunters back at inauspicious times.” The message is sincere, but the wording is more akin to a self-help guide than casual conversation. Ida and Martha’s chats feel as though they have been contrived by the author to excavate weighty topics, but they lack the flow, spontaneity, and informality of an intimate tête-à-tête between friends. The novel is also peppered with tragedy, bad news, and sadness. In this respect, it accepts and bravely faces the uncertainties of life, particularly in old age, but many readers will likely struggle with its pervasive melancholia.
Glimpses of the Montana landscape lift a gloomy narrative.