Exit Lines / Joan Barfoot
Toronto: Knopf, c2008.
So I finally finished this book, which I've had on my shelf since it was brand-new! Barfoot is reliably witty, caustic and full of dark humour, and this book certainly fulfilled my expectations for all of those elements.
It's the story of an unlikely quartet, four new friends who've banded together in their new retirement home. the Idyll Inn. From a small town, they've always known of one another, and known each other in various ways, but it's only now that they become a set of friends against the world.
Each of them feels unready to succumb to old age and its expected activities -- they don't want to spend their days waiting for lunchtime and playing cards. So they find a surreptitious source of booze and various items they still want, and continue on in their small rebellion. Until Ruth, widowed former social worker, asks the others for a very big favour, and changes the dynamics quite abruptly.
This story is about life itself -- what makes it worth living, what do we remember, what do we owe one another? It delves into the lives of each of the four characters, giving us glimpses of their past, of how quickly the years go and yet how much a part of us they remain. The distance between young mother/elderly widow isn't really very far. While physically limited now, these characters behave with the same individual personalities they had in midlife. Barfoot is making the point that life experience goes on until the very end, that we can choose to see the meaning and beauty in living while it lasts.
And she also brings up the difficult questions of how to cope with disability, with limitations or reductions in the scope of life, with pain and suffering. The characters represent the many sides to these issues, and because of this they do suffer a little from stereotypes -- the immigrant, the socialite, etc. Nonetheless, Barfoot develops a certain charm in this tale, even through the slower bits of the story. I didn't know what to expect from the conclusion but was pleased with the idea that life simply goes on. There wasn't necessarily a deliberate, defined conclusion -- more of a lifelike 'carry on'.
I found this an interesting read, though didn't love it as much as I have some of her other books. There was lots to think about, and enough humour to lighten things up when they felt very serious. The Idyll Inn's daily round was quite funny, to anyone who has any experience with the quirks of retirement residences. This book is another in the rash of retirement-residence novels I've randomly read this year, and adds another voice to that presentation.
Other recent reads featuring nursing home cameos and more:
Flee, Fly, Flown by Janet Hepburn
The World by Bill Gaston
Perdita by Hilary Scharper
The 100 Year Old Man who climbed out the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson