"A Year By The Sea"

A Year By The Sea - Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman by Joan Anderson

Odd? Confusing? Exhausting? These words all describe my encounter with this book. I don't recall ever having quite the same experience with any book before. It still amazes me, and I hope it always will, that words printed on paper can do this to a person. And as Martha would say "It's a good thing!".

I'll begin at the beginning. My initial attraction to this book was the title. For a long time now I've been dreaming of time away and alone, and since I'm not really content unless I can see a body of water nearby, A Year By The Sea sounded like a title for my dream come true. The cover of this book had me hooked before I even knew what the story was about. I am such a pushover for a great cover and title.

The story is a recounting of Joan Anderson's year long separation from her husband. Her children were grown and married and her own marriage had grown stale, so when her husband announced that he was taking a new job in a new city, she surprised them both with her decision to not go with him, moving instead to their sea-side cottage for some time alone. They sold the house and went their separate ways, not knowing what it meant for their future, or if they would have a future together at all.

At the cottage, she settles in and adjusts to living alone. She walks, writes, takes a job at a local fish market, and meets an older woman, also named Joan, who becomes a sort of mentor to her. Her husband comes to spend an awkward Christmas with her, and in the spring they and their two sons and daughters-in-law gather at the cottage for a week-end together.

As I was reading I began to feel an overwhelming envy of her freedom to live alone by the sea for a year. I have no doubt there are thousands of women all over the world who would give away their book collections (wait..........yes, we would) to have that. I'm not making light of her suffering in any way, I'm just saying it would be amazing to have a place like that to go to when you needed it. A place to just be. I could almost smell the salt air and feel the breeze on my face. My envy became so strong I was aching to go and be alone by the water. Maybe not for a year, but at least for a couple of weeks. I can't come up with the words to express the intensity of the longing this book stirred up in me.

Back to the story. She writes of her experiences in a realistic tone, not overly optimistic but not cynical either. She's talks freely about her own shortcomings as well as those of her husband and how they've both contributed to the indifference that has moved into their marriage.

I couldn't decide if I liked her husband or not. He seemed a little tightly wound, and sometimes sarcastic or even mean with his words, though that probably isn't a fair assessment because there's not a great deal about him in the book. In any event, I found myself rooting for the marriage as I read.

When I finished the book and began to write this post it dawned on me that I didn't know her husband's name. I flipped through the book a couple of times but couldn't find it; she refers to him only as "my husband" or "he".

Then I got angry. How could you write a book about your life and marriage and never mention your spouse's name? Did she see him only as a possession of hers and not a person in his own right? Was she that self-centered? Is that why the marriage came unglued? My sympathies did a somersault and I began to like him more and her less.

I also felt like I was missing parts of the story. She talks about becoming friends with an older woman and shares her experiences of living on her own for the first time, but toward the end of the book she mentions socializing with several people from her job at the market, a woman photographer, two couples she's gotten to know and some neighbors, none of whom are ever introduced to the reader. That was a bit jolting because she does such a good job of drawing you into her life and feeling as though you are on this journey with her, then you realize a big part of her story is closed to you. And when she makes the decision whether or not to reconcile with her husband, it isn't really clear how she came to that conclusion. I closed the book angry and frustrated, feeling like I couldn't connect all the dots.

So I did something I've only ever done once before. I turned from the last page back to the first page and started again. I read the entire book through the second time looking for I don't even know what. Maybe more time by the sea. Maybe some mention of her husband's name. Maybe more connection between the dots. I don't know, but this book had gotten under my skin and I needed something more.

When I got to the end the second time, I did find those dots a little easier to connect. I still don't know the husband's name and I cannot fathom why that should be so, but I'm not angry with either of them anymore. I like them both, flaws and all. And I was happy living vicariously by the sea through her story. I am going to move on the my next book, because I have a Book Club meeting in a few days and I'll be leading the discussion so I need to be prepared. I want to read this one again though. I want to live in it, a response even stronger than what I had to the Peter Mayle "Provence" books to which I became a bit addicted for a while.

So. In my journey through these pages I found myself envious, confused and angry. But I also felt affection, strong dislike, a kind of freedom, and great delight. Wow. I'd say that must be one good book. I recommend it (the book, not the emotional roller coaster) to women, especially women of "a certain age"; I suspect we can all find ourselves somewhere in these pages. I don't know if her story would resonate so much with younger women and probably not at all with men, but still, it's a very, very good read and I think she's a wonderful writer.


Linda Vincent said...

Thats a great review....you've definitely made me want to read the book!
I'm glad you liked my woodblock BTW - thank you :-)
PS I've just started reading 'A Year In The World' by Frances Mayes. Hope I like it as much as you did.....

Ordinary Reader said...

Hi Linda. Thanks for the kind words. Let me know what you think of the Mayes book.

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