Joy Harkness has been running from relationships all of her life. When her husband’s goals weren’t compatible with what she had in mind, she left him to pursue a life in the teaching track at Columbia University, and after several years of an unsatisfactory life, holding few personal connections Joy decides to take a position at Amherst College, where she will be under the tutelage of a brilliant professor who is trying to innovate learning and teaching. She impulsively buys a house that seems to be on the brink of imploding, and one of her colleagues, and indeed everyone in town, insists that only Teddy can possibly help her restore her house to habitability much less glory. Joy and Teddy get off to a tension filled start, but soon Joy’s life takes on multi-faceted turns the more deeply she connects with Teddy, her new community and her house.
This was one of those books that was almost handcrafted for me. Joy is a smart character with a keen interest in literature and I love the passages where she talks about books she’s read and her analysis of them, which sometimes relates back to her life. There is also a strong foray into the workings of academia, and I enjoyed being ensconced in that world from a perspective other than a student. Joy relocates to a college town that I am very familiar with, and it was great fun to revisit all the old haunts as she branches out and gets to know all the haunts and starts to set down roots in a way that she has never known before.
Meier’s writing is lush, but also clear and thoughtful. There were these very astute observations and reflections on life that made me laugh, and had me shaking my head at their truthfulness. Her characters, especially Joy, are flawed and wonderful all at the same time – much, like real people. Joy has led a very insular life and the tension of the book comes as she reflects on how little she has been present in her own life, and is challenged to give more of herself by the close-knit community of people in her new life who essentially force her out of her shell.
Meier’s characters have strong voices and identities, and I was often on the edge of my seat as I tried to work out how choices would affect them, particularly Joy, and if she would in some cases see the light. The story started to meander a bit when Joy becomes enmeshed in the lives of others and the fact that she has to change becomes too much of a forced issue. Meier refocuses beautifully at the end of this wonderful novel as Joyce comes into her own. Meier’s smart writing, balanced portrayal of smart women with different lifestyles, and ability to relate the small truths of ordinary life have put her on my list of debut authors whose work I definitely want to see again.