Catherine Kingsley Allen’s new novel “If…” is about a love lost. Allen, 94, writes of a two-week cruise-ship romance 50 years gone. She says her debut book is geared toward an older crowd — the protagonist is 75 years old.
In speaking to Allen, it’s hard to imagine that she’s familiar with regret like the one in her novel, romantic or otherwise. The only similarity she seems to share with her character Kathleen is their work as travel agents and their love of travel.
Allen, of Shawnee, was an agent for 47 years, many of those in Kansas City. During that time she raised two children and visited 34 countries — “You’re not a good travel agent if you just hand out brochures, to my way of thinking,” she says. “You have to go!”
She missed the entire African continent but has been everywhere else. She had an itinerary in hand for a trip to an African nation in the 1970s during the reign of Ugandan strongman Idi Amin — but her son asked her to sit that one out, fearing for her safety. She doesn’t regret not going.
When she started writing “If…” a few years ago she says she didn’t think for more than five minutes before she knew what she wanted it to be about: a 25-year-old widow who takes a cruise alone, meets a divorcé, also traveling alone, falls in love, then falls out of touch, leading to a lifetime’s worth of searching and what-ifs.
Her own life has been full of love; she married Winfred Allen, a marine engineer, during WWII and was with him until his death in 1999. She has two children, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. She says, if anything, the love of her family and involvement with their lives, and theirs in hers, has been what’s kept her going — that and three teaspoons of sugar in every cup of coffee.
She still drives and does her best to walk an hour a day, sometimes only around her apartment.
After high school, she earned an executive secretarial diploma from New York’s Ballard School and immediately began working for “Encyclopedia Americana,” first as the executive secretary to the editor, later as a French-to-English translator — just because she wanted to.
During WWII, while her husband was in the Atlantic aboard a minesweeper, she lived in an apartment near the harbor in New York City. She volunteered as an air raid warden, standing watch atop her building, at the ready to alert the Army to incoming planes or submarines — also just because she wanted to.
Allen wrote for Kansas City’s “Town Squire” magazine and was featured on a cable travel program called “Ask Kay” for about four years — a bit of a local celebrity on top of everything else.
Her book’s heroine doesn’t possess Allen’s elan, but one gets the sense that Allen is matchless, fictional or otherwise.
This isn’t to say that Kathleen didn’t have the chutzpah to keep up her search for Kevin, her lost cruise-ship love; she searched in every way she knew how. It’s only that Allen probably would not have let the guy get away in the first place.
What’s promising about her novel, and what will make it appealing to an older demographic, is that Allen wrote Kathleen as a realist, able to make controlled decisions about her actions even after we learn Kevin’s fate. She does continue to ask herself “what if,” but she never blames anyone else for the course of her life or looks to anyone else to solve her problems as someone younger might.
Allen says that as she wrote the book she “did not think of it as age-related.” She did, however, consciously include a prominent secondary character a bit younger than Kathleen. “Baby boomers have probably shown the most satisfaction in the reading so far,” she says.
Allen begins “If…” with a quotation from French novelist Colette: “Love has never been a question of age. I shall never be so old as to forget what love is.”
In Allen’s case, it appears that she also will never be so old as to forget what it is to live.
Anne Kniggendorf: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If…”; by Catherine K. Allen; CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 208 pgs; $7.95