From that synesthetic description of the suitcase (“a smooth shellacked surface with yellow stitching underneath the glaze…Ann Lord could almost taste the surface of it at the back of her throat.”) and the initial car ride, dizzying with the thrill of sexual magnetism and New England summer, I knew I was in the hands of a writer masterful in her descriptions. So a disclaimer: I love sensual, emotionally charged descriptions. The poetic, carefully chosen images continue to haunt me months after the reading.
But the real point of Minot’s novel, which presents a woman’s life as she remembers it while dying, is that love is less about the objects of our affection than the quality of the love granted them. Not sure whether I agree, but Minot’s protagonist, Ann, clearly comes down on the side of love over knowledge of another person. And in following Ann’s reminiscences from her deathbed, Minot shows how deeply perception colors everything. Throughout her long life, from the great love of her twenties, Harris Arden, and on through all her marriages, Ann drifts separate and alone with her feelings because, for her, feelings are the truth—and she lives accordingly. If Ann had seen Harris for the self-indulgent, impulsive playboy he was, had perceived how little he thought of or knew or cared for anyone, she’d have had another life. And so Minot makes the point that how we perceive, and what we choose to believe, is how we live—and thus, too, how we die.
For Minot’s novel is as much about death as it is about the relationship between love and perception. In a way, she has given us another Madame Bovary, a woman hungry for sensual experience and romantic love—and hardly concerned with moral, financial, or psychological realities. For such a woman, death offers no truth other than her own. The imagined conversations she holds with her Harris contain both the novel’s turning points as well as chances for Ann to resolve what could not, in reality, be resolved. And so at the last, it is her Harris, and not ours, that bids her on her way.