Joy Harkness has had it with New York City. Leaving her post as a professor at Columbia University and selling her cluttered apartment, Joy accepts a new position in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she busies herself as a member of a new educational group spear-headed by Bernadette, a renowned educator.
Oh, and there’s this house.
A rambling, beat-up, unsteady but gorgeous Victorian, to be exact. Joy surprises herself by falling in love with it, trading small-space city living for the sprawling interiors of her new Amherst home. The place is a disaster, to be sure, but with the creative direction and steady hands of Teddy Hennessey, a local handyman and restorer, it begins to hold its own — right around the time Joy begins to open her hardened heart to a new host of people and ideas, both big and small.
Diane Meier’s The Season Of Second Chances delivers on what it promises: a novel based on the thought that “coming of age can happen at any age.” When we first meet Joy, she’s one bitter shrew of a 48-year-old — and I don’t mean that generously. She’s closed off. Cold. Distant. She shies away from human interaction, choosing to hold anything and everything at arm’s length. Her best friends are two cousins who specialize in Civil War history, the Grant Girls, and she notes with a hint despondency that they still never discuss anything “private.” In New York, her life was like a dusty, bound-up book.
Basically, Joy is a mess — just a carefully cultivated, educated mess. She loves English literature and finds solace in her books, as do most avid readers. A devotee of Henry James, Joy prefers spending a night in grading English papers and reading than having any semblance of a social life. Which is why she arrives in Amherst alone, divorced for decades and without any immediate family.
Despite the fact that, as a narrator, I found Joy condescending, pedantic and whiny from page one, something about The Season Of Second Chances really worked for me. It was a gradual process, but Joy — so hardened, so emotionally vacant — began to change. And she morphed before my eyes. As her home was lovingly restored by Teddy — wallpaper chosen; furniture installed — she changed with her surroundings. As it became more beautiful, so did she. And as her relationship with the home intensified, so did her relationships with the new people in her lives — especially Josie, a fellow professor, expert cook and mother; and Teddy, her handyman and new best friend.
The novel wasn’t without its troubles for me, though. While the fact that Joy was a professor was definitely her defining characteristic and crucial to the plot, I found any of the scenes revolving around academia and the “program” in which Joy was a member to be Boring. With a capital B. If there was some metaphor I was supposed to draw from Joy finding a more intuitive way to teach disinterested students, I didn’t see it. I could have happily skipped over any scenes at the college and been a happier reader.
I spent a good portion of the book in a blind rage, too, over Teddy’s situation with his mother, a good ol’ selfish “Mommie Dearest” if ever I’ve read one. Mrs. Hennessey was demeaning, rude, ill-tempered, terrible — and without redemption. Man, I hate when characters are beyond redemption! I kept waiting for Teddy to be slapped awake with the realization that he was a man — a 36-year-old man — who was no longer beholden to Mama’s whims and worries. And when that moment didn’t come, I wanted to reach in and slap her myself. (Yes, another character to slap — my list is growing.)
The tone of the book, too, was a little off for me. Written in first-person, the book serves as a narrative and feels present, despite the fact that it’s written in past tense — but Joy has far too much self-awareness to be narrating a truly current scene. I grew frustrated, too, with the fact that after I’d figured out a metaphor — like, “Oooh, yes, restoring the house is akin to restoring Joy!” — our fearless narrator would go ahead and just spell it out for me. I hate when that happens. I want to feel smart and sophisticated — like, you know, I got the book. I don’t want a character swooping in and hitting me in the face with the knowledge, spoiling all my fun.
I’m torn on this book. I can see why people love it — and just as easily see why people hate it. I had some issues with the novel, yes, but I’d feel terrible if I ended on a bad note. Overall, I found The Season Of Second Chances to be an entertaining, optimistic story — full of lush descriptions, interesting characterization and a whole host of vivid characters. As a narrator, Joy might have been a little cagey — but I came to love her, prickly thorns and all. And by the final page, I was cheering for her, too. Fans of contemporary and women’s fiction might enjoy this one — especially if you’re into coming-of-age stories that may or may not take place in a crumbling old house.
3.5 out of 5!