[18 August 2010]
The idea of newlyweds usually conjures images of fresh-faced youths imbued with optimism for their long and happy marriage. Yet rarely does that romantic ideal apply to couples who get married late in life, as each brings decades of family and financial obligations. In her first novel Commuters, Emily Gray Tedrowe explores this type of relationship, and what it means to find love in the last stages of life.
The story centers around 78-year-old Winnie Easton, a widow and grandmother who has spent her entire life in tiny Hartfield, New York, a town her father helped found. When she randomly meets Chicagoan Jerry Trevis on a trip to Florida, they instantly connect. Only a few months later, Jerry has moved to Hartfield to marry Winnie, much to the surprise and concern of their adult children.
Along with Winnie, Tedrowe also tells the story from the point of view of her middle-aged daughter Rachel, and Jerry’s 20-year-old grandson Avery. Both Rachel and Avery are in the middle of major life changes. Rachel is trying to keep her family financially afloat as her husband Bob recovers from a brain injury. Avery is just out of rehab and has recently moved to New York City, where he is planning to open his own restaurant. The three separate, but connected narratives help move the novel forward as it quietly unfolds more through characterization rather than dramatic events.
Not surprisingly, the most significant issue in this newly formed family is money. Jerry is wealthy, and he buys the largest house in Hartfield, a move that sparks turmoil both within the family and the town itself. Jerry’s daughter Annette now runs the business he founded several decades ago, and her disapproval of his marriage to Winnie goes so far that she sues Jerry to ensure her stake in his fortune. Meanwhile, Winnie’s daughter Rachel borrows money from Jerry to keep her family afloat, as does Avery for his restaurant, and the money ends up tying the family together in unexpected ways.
Yet the financial turmoil becomes the least interesting part of the plot, as soon after they’re married, Jerry is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Tedrowe movingly describes how Winnie comes to terms with the loss of someone she’s known only briefly, but cares about deeply: “There were things, though, about Jerry that Winnie knew and no one else could: that the soft white tuft of hair in the middle of his chest was the exact size of her hand. That he regularly dreamed about a pregnant cocktail waitress he’d met once, in a North Carolina bar, the night before he shipped out to Korea.” Tedrowe herself is only in her thirties, but she’s able to go to a place with Winnie that makes one reexamine what it means to grow old.
Avery is the least interesting character in the novel, but not because Tedrowe is unable to write from a male perspective. Rather, Avery’s life, which is filled with his restaurant venture and an intense relationship with an older woman, is simply less compelling than those of Winnie and Rachel because he has less at stake. As Winnie and Rachel struggle with their respective husbands’ illnesses, Tedrowe captures their daily lives with realistic dialogue and musings on love and sacrifice.
Though parts of the novel are not entirely memorable, Tedrowe’s lyrical prose make the book worth reading to the end. The family dynamics ring true as the characters interact with each other, and it’s easy to find truth in the competing interests of each family member. Novelists don’t often choose the elderly as protagonists, so it’s interesting to read about a type of love that’s also punctuated by an inevitable loss.