A combination of diary entries and letters, widowed Hattie McNair writes about life at the assisted living home where she’s moved after relinquishing her home when it becomes too much for her. The friend of the narrator, who is considering moving into this home and wants more information, inspires the collection of diary entries and letters.
The characters in the book (and in the home) are still capable of getting out and about, though not necessarily of maintaining a home any longer. The design of the book results in a more than slightly episodic nature. The book has no plot, in the sense of having a beginning, middle, and end, but rather it is an episodic description of life in an assisted living facility for the residents. There are, however, a few overarching threads, starting with the indignity of growing old–the need for frequent trips to the bathroom preventing one character from attending family events in another state or simply “pot-itis” or the shifts in one’s own body rendering skirt hems uneven. There is an aggravating old **** who accuses the handyman of theft, which act inspires our narrator to arrange a breakin into the accuser’s room to search for the brooch, which she and her friend assume is only misplaced…and sure enough, she’s right. A good friend of the narrator develops throat cancer and subsequently pneumonia, the “old man’s friend”; thankfully she’s written up health directives which specify no penicillin under just this circumstance and the doctor respects this, allowing her to slip away gently rather than obeying his own training and curing the transitory illness rather than acknowledging the overarching debility of old age.
The primary thread, nowever, is that of the skilled handyman who works on the maintenance crew of this nursing home, because he is unable to read well enough to get a driver’s license and therefore enable himself to move on to a better job. One of the residents, a retired teacher, coaches him in reading–he turns out to be dyslexic. The narrator discovers a cottage, sound though engulfed in kudzu (the bane of the south) and not only finds the owner, but through another resident convinces him to rent the cottage to the handyman and his family.
It’s not a perfect book, by any means. This is Wilder’s first novel, and, as with other readers, I suspect more than a slight autobiographical element in her work. Hattie is by no means a Mary Sue, as the characters are never presented as better than life, though I’m sure the author glosses over some aspects of living in an assisted living “home”. It’s a warm-fuzzy novel with just enough bittersweet to give the syrup a bit of tang; though it’s not a complete and accurate description of an assisted living facility, the author at least touches on the darker aspects of life. People die, people move to the full-care nursing home facility, children talk down to their parents, the world moves on without the protagonists and so on. It’s a short book, and therefore the characters are in no way completely, or even partially developed. Overall, it’s a bit of fluff, but what saves it for me is that at least the author does (I think) know what she’s talking about.