Rebecca's Reviews > Next Life Might Be Kinder

Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman
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I admire books that seem to give everything away in the first line yet keep you gripped all the way through to the last page. “After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me.” Norman’s stunning opening line reveals the crime and the murderer, but also suggests, rather curiously, an afterlife to this short-lived marriage in early 1970s Nova Scotia. The setup for this novel is very much like The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, but I liked this one so much more.

Novelist Sam Lattimore met Elizabeth, a twenty-nine-year-old PhD student from Hay-on-Wye, Wales, at a photography exhibit in Halifax. For the less than one year of their marriage, they lived in a long-term suite at the Essex Hotel. (The second novel in a row I read that’s set in a hotel, though the other, Bellweather Rhapsody – even with the mystery/ghost theme – could hardly be more different!) Sam delayed his novel by writing radio adaptations; Elizabeth made progress on her dissertation on The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski (which is a real book! I had to check after I finished reading); and together they took dance lessons, all along fending off the unwanted attentions of that creepy bellhop.

The novel tracks Sam and Elizabeth’s relationship, but also the peculiar course of Sam’s new life without her. Now living in an isolated beachfront cottage and battling writer’s block (he’s working on his second novel, by the terrific title of Think Gently on Libraries), Sam delves into his loss with his psychiatrist, Dr. Nissensen, but desperately avoids sharing it with the Norwegian filmmaker who bought the rights to his story and is turning it into a movie named Next Life Might Be Kinder. At the time, Sam needed the $125,000, but now he wishes he’d never agreed. “‘What “based on a true story” means, Istvakson [the director] said, ‘is my film will tell what really happened, only better.” Sam begs to differ. Although he detests the word “closure” – “When you lose someone you love, the memory of them maintains a tenacious adhesiveness to the heart,” he insists, quoting Chekhov – still he needs some way of living without Elizabeth.

Except, she’s not quite gone. She keeps turning up in his dreams – and in what seems like real life, during Sam’s early morning bouts of insomnia on the beach. Elizabeth lays out her books on the sand and they talk about their marriage and about the past; it even seems that she will reveal exactly what happened between her and Padgett during that final meeting in the hotel elevator.

I loved: Norman’s use of Hay-on-Wye as a setting; the recurrence of missing library books, the lindy hop and a Victorian chaise-longue; and the litany of bird names Sam tries to learn for his new birdwatching hobby. There’s also some great secondary characters (the film production assistant and the local librarian), and I enjoyed the characters’ musings on “situational ethics” – which mostly plays out through Sam’s neighbor getting an amazing estate sale bargain on an antique table.

I didn’t quite love: how thin and stereotypically villainous a character Padgett is; the obnoxious dance instructor who shouts “Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!”; the frequent references to Laski and to Brian Moore, Sam’s favorite author (I kept thinking there must be literary in-jokes I wasn’t quite getting); and the fact that Norman ties up the crime rather too neatly. I thought it should have been left open-ended and given a bit more psychological depth.

However, I feel chided for making these criticisms when I remember another Chekhov quote that appears in the novel, this time in Elizabeth’s dissertation notebook:

“The only question is, does the work as a whole allow one to taste the bitterness and sweetness of life. If the answer is a resounding yes, then to point out examples of so-called contrivance strikes me as prosecutorial, carping and undignified.”

(That told me!) I think there’s no question that Norman is applying this quote, in a tongue-in-cheek way, to his own novel. And I’d agree that he has mastered the bittersweet tone: I laughed out loud during many of Sam’s chats with Dr. Nissensen, but still found the demise of his young marriage almost unbearably sad.

I’d long been intrigued by Howard Norman’s books – having heard great things about The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard – but never managed to get hold of one of his novels before this one came up on NetGalley. You don’t often come across his work in libraries or secondhand shops.

It’s tricky to pinpoint quite who or what his writing reminds me of, but I thought I spotted shades of John Irving, Wayne Johnston, Ruth Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being), and maybe even Siri Hustvedt (The Blazing World) here. I will certainly seek out more of Norman’s books.
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Reading Progress

April 27, 2014 – Shelved
April 27, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
August 6, 2014 – Started Reading
August 6, 2014 – Shelved as: illness-and-death
August 6, 2014 – Shelved as: laugh-out-loud
August 6, 2014 – Shelved as: magic-realism
August 6, 2014 – Shelved as: read-via-netgalley
August 6, 2014 – Shelved as: writers-and-writing
August 6, 2014 – Shelved as: unreliable-narrator
August 6, 2014 – Finished Reading
August 7, 2014 – Shelved as: cathartic
August 7, 2014 – Shelved as: hay-on-wye
August 8, 2014 – Shelved as: bibliophiles-delight

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Borod this looks good!

Rebecca Andrea wrote: "this looks good!"

I loved it! Have you read any Howard Norman before? He's sort of under the umbrella of Canadian lit (though I think he's actually American) and has studied First Peoples languages and literature.

message 3: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Lovely review. The storyline is fascinating. I'm not sure why the long-term stay in a hotel really captured my attention and I also like the idea of the bookish characters :)

Rebecca Cheryl wrote: "Lovely review. The storyline is fascinating. I'm not sure why the long-term stay in a hotel really captured my attention and I also like the idea of the bookish characters :)"

Thanks, Cheryl. It was a somewhat unusual novel, but I just devoured it - in about 18 hours. I would love to read more from Norman soon.

Susan Gaska The Bird Artist is my clear favorite of Norman's books.

Rebecca Susan wrote: "The Bird Artist is my clear favorite of Norman's books."

Thanks, Susan. I have it on the shelf and hope to read it soon!

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