My friend Lora looked at my bookshelves and said, “So many old friends...Laurie Colwin, Penelope Lively....” So I knew I could trust any book recommendation she would make. She suggested, “When We Were the Kennedys,” and I got it immediately and, dear reader, now I recommend it to you.
“When We Were the Kennedys” is Monica Wood’s memoir of childhood, specifically 1963, when she was 9 and her father died suddenly and her family’s life was upended. And, as the title suggests, it takes in the events of November of that year, when another little girl lost her father suddenly, unsettling the life of a nation.
It is beautifully written, filled with tenderness for Wood’s child-self trying to figure out her new “Dadless” life and for the people around her. She is forgiving of flaws, whether in people or in Mexico, Maine, the town where she grows up with its dominating paper mill--”the Oxford”--and its way of life about to vanish. She forgives the Norkuses, the landlords who complain of “too much stairs,” terrorize visiting friends, and snoop through the family’s garbage. She forgives the missteps of her adored uncle. She forgives her mother’s desperate turning to the oblivion of sleep. Although it’s possible she may have come to this only later, she gives her younger self the ability to see huge generosity around her: an older sister who comes home to run the household, the younger sisters who don’t hold it against her that she often abandons them for her friend Denise, Denise’s parents who wrap her into the wholeness of their family.
Yes, the book begins with death, but it is about life: that’s what I’m saying as I urge it on people. Actually, that’s what I said about Will Schwalbe’s luminous “End of Your Life Book Club,” too. And about “Last Friends,” the third novel in Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth” trilogy. Yes, I realize I’m pressing these books on people with the disclaimer that “it’s about death, but it’s really about life.” (Even as I drive a friend to a radiation appointment, I’m touting one of these books. Really?)
Maybe it’s some confluence of beautifully-written books that seem to have this common element. Maybe it’s my age and the fact that each new day seems to bring new worries for friends. Maybe right now it’s the fact that it is two sunny spring Mondays past Patriot’s Day in Boston and you never do know, do you? But maybe, too, it’s a recognition that that’s what life is.