Cathie Beck, a single mother of two, had always lived on the solitary knife-edge of poverty. In her late thirties, with her children off at college, she yearned to live the life she had missed while struggling to provide for them, but she needed a posse. She placed an ad in the Boulder Daily Camerafor a new women’s group called WOW, “Women on the Way.”

“I’d invented a women’s group because I needed friends, preferably the instant kind,” she writes. “I don’t know why I thought placing an ad was the answer, except to say that for a great many quiet years I had looked for—yearned for—just one more person who was living the same life I was.”

At WOW, Beck met Denise, and their friendship ignited instantly. Denise, a sophisticated artist who gave generously and lived wildly, enthralled Beck. Denise was a risk-taker, sure of herself but not always wise, and some of her actions led to painful consequences. Despite their misadventures, though, she showed Beck how to live wholeheartedly and headlong. However, there was a catch: Denise had advanced multiple sclerosis, and the symptoms were worsening.

Cheap Cabernet is difficult to set aside, unblinkingly true, funny, coarse and sometimes pensive, with an unpredictable narrative structure that reflects the two women’s meteoric friendship. Beck writes honestly about her past—haunted by poverty—her early motherhood, abandonment, desperate loneliness and an even more desperate desire to give her children a good life. She applies that honesty to her friendship with Denise. Their relationship inspires both hilarity and helplessness, especially as the MS takes its toll and both women struggle to define their place in the shifting sands of each other’s lives.

Relationships are messy, imperfect affairs, Cathie Beck emphasizes. However, because of Denise, Beck learned how to live without fear, to open her heart to others and to occasionally lift a glass of cheap cabernet in the company of friends.

Marianne Peters is a freelance writer who occasionally sips cheap cabernet in Plymouth, Indiana.

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