This one will be nominated to my list of favorites for the year.
For the duration of the performance of the absurdist play “Happy Days” by Samuel Becket we get to know three women. It begins as one of the women is being seated and ends as the women make their way to the parking lot after the play. Somehow within these limits, a novel emerged with characters we come to know well along with and through references to the play.
The three women are quite different from each other: Margot is a university professor teaching Victorian literature nearing retirement age; Summer is in her early 20s, a student of the theatre who fell in love with a woman who tattoos for a living; and Ivy is a woman in her 40s with a very young child and a ton of money that came to her unexpectedly. We hear their stories and their concerns of the moment as well as learning that both the younger women had been students of Margot. The author is Australian and though in the main it could be set anywhere, there are some clearly Australian moments in the book. And there’s the play: a woman called Winnie is buried to her waist in a mound, talks to herself and to her husband who is nearby, brushes her teeth, and regularly comments, “Oh, this is a happy day.” (For more, here’s the Wikipedia entry: Happy Days.) Without purporting to recount the play, there are plenty of references to it and Winnie’s chatter enters into the women’s thinking.
The women bring different concepts/ideas to the fore. Among these are aspects of Margot’s long and happy marriage. Listening to the play she thinks of something she had learned years before when she drove his car instead of her own. When she started the car, the CD player blasted rock music–Bruce Springsteen on that day. She was conscious that “there was something about the emotional thrust of the song and the volume of the stereo that made her understand plainly that when her husband listened to music, it made his heart soar.” She never mentioned it to him, feeling it would be disrespectful of his privacy. John is now lapsing into dementia and has become violent toward her, leaving bruises on her arms. She was embarrassed and knows she will have to do something, but has been unable to take action yet.
Summer has great anxiety that is focused on the state of the planet and her fears are appropriate, if sometimes debilitating. At the moment she is concerned about her beloved April who is driving to her family home to help them deal with the wildfire that is threatening them. Summer has dark skin and as her mother will not tell her about her father, she wonders if she has Aboriginal family members she should know.
Ivy Parker was a brilliant scholarship girl when she was Margot’s student. She has suffered great loss, and now in her early 40s has a baby and had inherited a great fortune from her mother’s friends. Ivy says, “I hadn’t realized quite the extent of it. They left me their money. No kids of their own. That’s it. They hoped I’d do something interesting with it. I’m still working it out years later.” Margot was floored to learn The Parker Foundation was Ivy’s. She says, “It’s straight out of a nineteenth-century novel. An orphan with a fortune! Oh my lord.”
The wonderful emotional moments that emerged from this unusual structure made this a great book. Who would think it would work to have such limitations, using a play that itself is an absurd structure? Nevertheless, it is beautiful and moving.
Claire Thomas, The Performance, Riverhead Books, 2021, 240 pages (I read the kindle version).