The most memorable journeys are often the ones that end up taking us to places we hadn’t anticipated.
They also make for the best reading. Gina Frangello’s “A Life in Men” starts from one such journey and offers many unanticipated pleasures.
Mary and Nix are young, beautiful, blond women with a summer vacation together in Greece ahead of them. Friends since childhood, they share that close understanding of each others’ thoughts and concerns.
Mary’s concerns in particular weigh on their minds: She’s living with a form of cystic fibrosis, one almost certain to shorten her life expectancy. “‘What I need,’ Mary whispers urgently, ‘is an adventure.’
Soon enough, their story moves toward territory laid out in Mary’s doodling on a postcard: “Story suitable for chick flick,” a last adventure for two best friends before one succumbs to illness.
While not exactly prepared for the emotional toll that story would take, they at least have an idea of the path that story could take, a framework for what they think is to come. “There are many beginnings to any story,” though, and this is only one of them.
The story then makes the first of many shifts in time, years into the future. Mary is still very much alive, living in an apartment abroad with a boyfriend, some flatmates of questionable repute and no sign of Nix. Mary has taken her name, her identity.
Which isn’t to say she has miraculously overcome cystic fibrosis. Mary still manages her daily treatments, still needs to choose carefully where she goes and who she goes with, and still finds herself at the mercy of her illness when she least expects it.
In a relationship with Joshua, she tries to live her life as though she isn’t ill, keeping the fact of it a secret from him. A drug addict with questionable motivations saves her when the illness nearly takes her life, leading her to question the choices she has made — not for the first time, and far from the last.
Other points in Mary’s life circle into view — in a relationship with an older, married man, she travels to meet her birth father; married, she finds her life settling into normalcy, with a man who understands her illness and takes measures that improve her lung functioning to a level better than most healthy people experience.
As with life itself outside of books, things that are good also have a darker, unplanned, unanticipated side, one that doesn’t necessarily cancel out the goodness but comes part and parcel with it. People from Mary’s past reappear, the story’s narrative moves back and forth in time, and the full impact of everyone’s decisions can make sense only at the end of it all. The events of that trip to Greece ripple outward, pulling everybody in Mary’s universe into orbit around what happened.
Frangello writes with a clarity into the human condition that allows her to lay bare the countless ways our lives are connected, between us and other people, but more importantly between ourselves and who we were and who we’re becoming.
Light years away from any “chick flick,” Frangello unwinds the relationships and movements of a lifetime in far-reaching detail. The book’s heartbreaking conclusion will leave you feeling you’ve been on the journey with these characters, and all the better for it.
A Life in Men
, by Gina Frangello (432 pages; Algonquin Books; $14.95)Matthew Tiffany is a freelance writer and book critic in Brunswick, Maine.