Similarities abound in the lives and careers of Anne Tyler and Gail Godwin.
Both grew up in North Carolina. Each is within two years of age 80, has published novels for a half century or more and has won critical and popular acclaim. And each now blesses her fans with another accomplished entry in a distinguished canon.
Friends and family of folks devoted to routine and organization sometimes urge them to forsake the customary for the spontaneous. But such change often springs more from unexpected disruption than well-meaning advice.
Tyler addresses that dichotomy in “Redhead by the Side of the Road,” which focuses on Micah Mortimer, a self-employed tech expert who moonlights as his Baltimore apartment building’s superintendent.
A fusspot loner with a touch of OCD, 43-year-old Micah lives for structured familiarity. But the unexpected intervenes.
First, his girlfriend, schoolteacher Cass Slade, tells him she fears that the cat-allergic friend from whom she’s subletting an apartment might evict her for taking in a stray feline.
Then Brink Adams, a college freshman and the son of Micah’s first love, Lorna Bartell, shows up and says he believes Micah might be his biological father.
Miffed that Micah offers his spare room temporarily to Brink, rather than her, Cass ends their relationship.
A worried Lorna arrives next. And the confluence of events leads Micah to consider the paucity of a constricted life.
“Redhead by the Side of the Road”—Tyler’s 23rd original novel—incorporates each of her trademarks: ordinary lives examined with extraordinary grace; multifaceted characters who remind us of people we know, ourselves included; and descriptive prose that conjures striking mental pictures.
Taken individually, each of Tyler’s novels constitutes a polished pearl. But when viewed as her life’s work, they represent a testament to humanity and its quirks, a glittering diamond mined from the generosity of the author’s spirit and shaped by her profound compassion.
In 1958, teenagers Meredith “Merry” Jellicoe and Feron Hood meet as first-year roommates at Lovegood College, a two-year school for girls in North Carolina.
Open-hearted Merry and complicated Feron might seem an odd pairing. But Godwin’s vivid portrayal of their lives flourishes as she moves her story through to 2001 as both aspiring writers suffer shattering losses.
Feron escapes to Lovegood after the death of her alcoholic mother and the brutality of her stepfather. Aided by her uncle—the brother of the biological father she never knew—she bonds with Merry, the fortunate daughter of well-to-do tobacco farmers.
Over the years, the two women meet sporadically—sometimes a decade or more passes with little or no contact—but both find that the friends of one’s youth become more precious with the passage of time. Even when interaction is absent, competition and influence are present.
Godwin, the author of 16 novels and two collections
of short stories, often assesses the ways in which the ghosts of the past affect the present, and she does so with her familiar depth in “Old Lovegood Girls.”
With astute pacing of her plot and perfect pitch for her characters’ inner lives, she creates a satisfying and affecting novel, one that succeeds on multiple levels as she looks at life in youth and age, in joy and sorrow. And her lovely prose benefits from her precision of thought and subtlety of understatement.
A meditation on the landscape of friendship, whether lying fallow or in full harvest, “Old Lovegood Girls” also represents a brave exploration of writers and their processes and a study in resilience. And it stands on a firm foundation: Godwin’s unmatched ability to weave a rich tapestry with a penetrating but kind eye.