“The Last First Day” is Carrie Brown’s quietly powerful new novel about a married couple, Peter and Ruth, moving into the last period of their long, shared lives. The book opens on the first day of the school year at the Derry School, where Peter has been headmaster for almost 40 years, and where they both have lived and worked for more than half a century. Though Peter is “too much a part of the school’s history to be fired, too well loved by too many,” he is now 76 years old, as is Ruth. Neither of them wants to talk about his retirement, or about what he will do next and where they will go when their time at the school is over.
The gentle, deep and abiding love that Ruth and Peter have for each other provides the container for this exquisitely written, multidimensional story. There is lucidity and depth in each observed or remembered moment of their lives, giving an overall view of a beautiful landscape seen through clear water, a scene of truth and transformation.
With no children of their own, Ruth and Peter have meant everything to each other since their early teen years, when Ruth was brought to the home of Peter’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. van Dusen, after having witnessed a violent confrontation between the police and her father. After staying briefly with the van Dusens, she became the live-in companion to an invalid. She and Peter met again in college, married and went to the Derry School to spend the rest of their peaceful and productive lives together.
Most of the book is Ruth’s, at the time when Peter begins to show the medical symptoms that prevent him from continuing at Derry. A little of the story is told from Peter’s perspective, but it is Ruth’s perception that holds and compels the reader, her fear of her life without Peter, her frequent thoughts about death: “She hated that the idea of her own death — or Peter’s — came to her so reflexively these days, and often when she saw something beautiful.” Ruth’s view of the world is not consistent or serene. She has always argued with Peter about religion, which she defiantly rejects as “just a story.” Still, Peter’s faith has given her strength in her lifelong battle against loneliness.
Because Ruth’s life has been one of childhood suffering followed by adult happiness, she cannot entirely trust her present contentment. She feels piercingly the beauty of ordinary objects, “a cracked oval of pale green soap in a scallop shell, a damp washcloth draped on the glinting tap,” but she resents a young man at the school who, she imagines, is eager to supplant Peter in his job. She has conversations with herself about the tedium of her daily life and duties at the school: the ball games, the dinners with trustees.
In one surreal episode, a homeless man comes to Ruth’s door with a sick dog, brandishing a gun. He wants her car, to take the animal to the vet. She is frantic, but the gun itself is almost familiar, “as if she had been waiting for all these decades for it to reappear, to reassert itself.” After the man leaves with her Subaru, she goes back and checks the oven, to be sure that her cheese puffs aren’t burning.
One of the great gifts of this book is the simple, meditative quality of its narrative. Terrible things happen and have happened. These people struggle and are hurt. Spouses age and die. It is not always possible, Brown suggests, to understand our lives. Nonetheless, one can see with clarity and with an appreciation for certain glimpsed miracles in every day, whatever else the day brings. It is possible to live to the very end in the presence of sustaining love.
Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, including “Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures.”
THE LAST FIRST DAY
By Carrie Brown
Pantheon. 292 pp. $24.95