Like that lethal dude Liam Neeson plays in the movies, novelist Lauren Fox (Still Life With Husband, Friends Like Us) has honed a very particular set of skills.
She takes women who are falling apart and pulls wit, snark, pith and occasional insight out of them. No contemporary novelist makes me stop as often to mark or admire one of her sentences. Plenty of people can write limpid or fancy prose, but Fox ladles out one flavorful reduction of human angst and misery after another.
The possible line of inspirational coffee mugs derived from her new novel, Days of Awe, will include such perky thoughts as “You can’t preserve anything; every happy moment is already on its way to becoming nostalgia” and “Death smashes a crater into your life, and you’re left alone to sort through the rubble.”
Days of Awe draws its title from the period of the solemn introspection urged upon Jews between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, though Fox’s narrator, Isabel Applebaum Moore, also experiences gentler moments of wonder and appreciation.
Occasionally, her novel makes me think, perhaps incongruously, of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, another sad story of two couples falling apart.
The novel opens at the funeral of Josie, Isabel’s fellow middle school teacher, who died in a late-night car crash. “She would always be my wild, grieving, huge-hearted, selfish, confident, insecure, extravagant best friend,” Isabel tells us.
Moving backward and forward, Isabel recounts the history of their friendship while unraveling the skein of events and decisions that led to her death. Josie had been married to Mark, Isabel’s childhood buddy and Hebrew school classmate; Izzy and her husband, the gentle gentile Chris, often hung out with them. The more outgoing Josie seizes Isabel as a BFF on the day they meet, bonding over inanities at a faculty meeting; readers will detect, almost immediately, edgy and manic notes in her behavior.
Intersecting the horizontal axis of the couples, Fox gives us the vertical of Izzy with her mother Helene and her daughter Hannah, 11 at the outset. Were Days of Awe the pilot script for a TV series, elderly actresses would throw elbows to audition for Helene, who escaped the Holocaust as a little girl, unlike her relatives, and lets no one, particularly Izzy, forget that. Eyeballing a contender for Izzy’s affection, Helene whispers to her, “Is he the kind of person who would hide us in an attic?” Hearing about a blond girl assigned to work with her seventh-grade daughter on a school project, Helene muses, “Krakowski. Just make sure her family didn’t put our family into the ovens.”
But Helene, in the aftermath of a stroke, faces her own diminishment gloomily, unnerving Izzy, the 43-year-old daughter who still depends on her emotionally.
As for the stormy Hannah, she is Izzy’s only child, born amid multiple miscarriages. In a novel that depicts a woman processing several kinds of losses, none hit harder in fewer words than these: “I didn’t think of them as babies. They weren’t. They were pieces of me, though: secrets, sweet hazy dreams, the thrumming anticipation of surprises. I guarded them tenderly, selfishly, and so when they were gone, I grieved them like amputations, silent deaths, down, down, deep at the center of me.”
Fox sets her novel in a recognizable Milwaukee, with many businesses renamed to avoid getting bogged down in pedantic realism. But in one poignant flashback, Izzy, Chris and 4-year-old Hannah wander around the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center until they reach the observation tower.
Not every one climbs it, but each one sees something wonderful.
Jim Higgins reviewed this book for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.