by Deanna LarsonOctober, 1998
Dying is an experience you can't imagine until you get there, and impossible to relate once you have. In Evening, her third novel, Susan Minot manages to construct one long, poetic, elegiac moment that approximates life's ending. Ann is a thrice-married mother of four, who lies in her bed at age 65, recalling the piecemeal details of her life as she dies of cancer. Her children and friends gather as a nurse tends to Ann's needs and makes notes of her decline in a daily diary. Like Mrs. Dalloway's party, these visits are the touchstone for Ann's dreamlike flights into the past and the measuring stick for her disappointments. Most of her life funnels into a pivotal event falling in love during one weekend when she was 25 and a bridesmaid in her friend Lila's wedding on the East Coast. After an intense, transcendental affair on the night of the wedding, Ann's lover reveals that she is his one true love but that he will return to Chicago and marry his pregnant finance. Devastated, she spends the night grieving, unaware that a simultaneous tragedy has struck the family of the bride. As she lies in bed dying, Ann imagines a conversation with this lover, who finally addresses some of the questions that have obsessed her all her life. Her flashbacks are related in spare, symbolic simplicity, and hallucinatory images and conversations are introduced with a poetic sense of time: It was years later, it was years ago. In one chapter, what seems to be a memory of her son's death evolves into a memory of Ann herself as a young woman, mourning another lost love and on another level, the tragedy that befell the bride's brother at the wedding. This same memory segues into the present thoughts of her son Teddy, thinking about his mother leaving this world, much as Ann's lover did that wedding weekend. The impressionistic wash of thoughts, reminiscences, and dreams are woven so subtly, the parallel universes of present, past, and future hit with the power of a self-revelation. Minot brilliantly handles time frames and sensory details, building their impressions with a filmic syntax style that follows the action like a tracking shot going from bird's eye view to the corner of an interior room in the space of a paragraph. The Joycean repetition of words and ideas builds to a quiet emotional crescendo; in Minot's hands, the means to the end becomes the point: edifying, full of grace, profound, just as we hope our own death will be.
Deanna Larson is a writer in Nashville, Tennessee.