Female friendships are powerful fodder for many novels. Off Keck Road, Mona Simpson's newest book, is a quirky, free-flowing paean to the vagaries and complexities of female friendships.
The novel opens in 1956 when Bea Maxwell, home from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, drives out to a new housing development to visit with a sorority sister, June Umberhum. The development, off Keck Road, is on the outskirts of Green Bay and is populated with many "ruddy, unminded children. In this deceptively simple novel, a wealthy girl grows up, goes to college, moves to the big city but soon returns home. Along the way, she makes a few friends, deals with her aging parents and makes a living. But in that simplicity lies the truth of most of our lives: we grow up, we go to school, we settle down. But, there is always more to everyone's life, and there is more to the life of Bea and June. Bea comes home and stays home. That's what makes this novel so memorable.
Bea, in her mother Hazel's estimation, could have been popular, could have had boyfriends and could have gone to proms. Why didn't she? Bea is the girl in high school who leads committees, hangs the decorations and gets things done. She seems "oblivious to the whole underworld of flirtation, as if she were missing the receiving wires. Bea also knits. It is not the occasional knitting of the novice or the practical knitting of people in cold climates. Bea sends away to Italy for fine cashmere yarns and knits one complicated garment after another, clicking her way through meetings and long dateless evenings. In this meandering novel, the story is told through the eyes of many characters at different points in time. There is Shelley, a girl who contracts polio from the vaccine, and Hazel, who muses on her maternal failings. But mostly, we have the complex and unusual main character, Bea, interested in men but woefully deficient in her knowledge of the dances of relationship. She does what she is supposed to: she cares for her parents, forgives her perfect sister, works hard, knits baby gifts and calls on birthdays. In the end, Mona Simpson has written the lives of many women through her Everywoman, Bea. There is enough of her in each of us to make this a memorable story.
Robin Smith teaches school in Nashville.