An examination of life looking back from a mature age is at the center of The Last First Day by Carrie Brown and I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck. The authors avoid the easy take on growing old and instead go for the difficult but incisive exploration of what it means – and what it takes – to be a woman of a certain age. The books are anchored by the characters of two very different women, and the writing styles of the authors are also distinct, and yet what the books share is exquisite sensitivity to the rhythms of life. We are given a close look at the choices the women have made, some good and some bad; the roles taken on, willingly and not so willingly; and the spaces they keep for themselves, isolated and inviolate. It is a mandate of human existence that we have such spaces and yet we are never really alone, ever. The past invades as much as the present, and hope for the future persists in poking its head in, no matter how impossible such hope seems.
In The Last First Day, Ruth faces a wrenching change, a move that will take her from the New England boarding school campus where she has lived most of her adult life, dutifully assisting her husband in his role as headmaster. The stability of those years was a stark contrast to her unstable childhood and now instability threatens again.
In I Married You for Happiness, Nina sits vigil by her husband, rewinding the life they’ve created together. It was a sturdy marriage and yet beneath the surface, certain deceptions, inadequacies and failures still cause pain. But what of the joy? Nina wraps herself up in both the aching and the comforting memories, just as she wraps herself, piece by piece, in assorted articles of clothing. The material and metaphysical accumulations come together, as a kind of promise for the future.
How do the choices we make early in life play out down the road? What insights gained in the past can prepare us for the coming decrepitude of our faculties? Will past joys outweigh sorrow, will memory carry us forward, will desire (not only for sex but also for friendship, food, books) fade away or can desires persist or perhaps reformulate, in greater and different ways? Ask yourself the question: what is the most important thing to me in the world. And then consider how you’ll answer the question twenty years down the line, and how it was answered twenty years ago. The women of The Last First Day and I Married You for Love take a hard look at questions of happiness, identity, and connection, throughout the varied stages of their lives. The answers they come up with will enlighten us all.