THE HOMELY DETAILS of women's lives
--floor wax, carpools, dirty diapers, casseroles--have been hashed and rehashed in a lot of recent fiction. They are easy targets, the stuff of any mad housewife's diary. And they are necessary targets, too, as backlash to the frilly apron school of the 1950s. But after all the attacks, underneath the cute irony, a question persists: if domestic life is such a stew, why do women keep digging right in?
Nancy Thayer's heroine, Daisy, knows the answer. Daisy's life is certainly the stickiest of stews. There are jelly beans under her sofa cushions, clots of Play-Doh on the floor, fine white cat hairs everywhere. And--there is Daisy herself, vast and pregnant, with two small children to take care of and a husband who is leaving her for another women--a younger, thinner woman who writes for a newspaper and wears chic leather boots. But Daisy, cozy in her shapeless nightgown, "as old and comfortable as her skin," does not dislike her life. Rather, she has decided to let it make her happy where it can. She takes pleasure in the warm and sleepy bulk of her children's bodies. She enjoys the lines and the polish of her big old house. She fixes great sweet breakfasts and sits with her children to watch Captain Kangaroo, an hour of magic and music and kindness.
All of this works for Daisy now--and Nancy Thayer's intelligent and graceful writing makes us believe it could work, even makes it all seem appealing--but Daisy herself is smart enough to know it won't work forever, that someday she will want something more. There is the example of her mother, Margaret, who, after 30 years of marriage, of raising children, of giving, giving, giving, has shed her old life like an old skin and flown off to Vancouver to start anew. "I am here, an independent woman, a free woman, a woman who owes nothing to anyone," she writes to Daisy. " I am here in Vancouver, the most beautiful city in the world, in a small pure house that is mine, only mine. I have no plans."
And there is Dale, Daisy's younger sister, starting a new life teaching school on the coast of Maine. We see Dale, five years younger than Daisy, body unscarred by childbirth, running on the beach, alive--almost aglow--with the first jolts of falling in love.
Daisy, Dale and Margaret are Nancy Thayer's Three Women at the Water's Edge, a title almost clunky with implications. In fact, all three women do live next to the water. Margaret looks out her windows to watch freighters on the Pacific. Dale runs next to the icy gray Atlantic. And Daisy sits in between, by the shore of Lake Michigan, big enough to give the illusion of an ocean, but secure, protected by a continent. Of course the water is more than scenery in this book, more than a convenient backdrop for three separate lives. Mother and daughters, all raised in land-locked Iowa, now feel compelled by these great bodies of water. "I feel more like a mermaid who finally found the sea," Margaret says, "that is, I feel I have found my real element, found my home." Dale confides to Hank Kennedy, the man she loves, "I feel that I would go berserk if I couldn't get to the ocean every day. It's become something I need." And Daisy simply knows that having a house on the lake will make her "eternally happy."
Thayer's symbolism is not exactly subtle. In Dale's first rapturous days of love for Hank, she allows the Atlantic to spray all over her, despite its October chilliness. And after Margaret has rejected her new lover's proposal of marriage, has decided, in fact, that she will probably never marry again, she moves inland, away from her Pacific view, away from her close contact with the water. But, if all of this is a bit heavy-handed, it does not really intrude on Thayer's strong story.
Because this is a whole and generous book. There is no skimping, no false economy of character. It is a book about big changes, but Nancy Thayer does not neglect the small moments that make it all real. In Iowa, Dale and Daisy's father weeps because his wife has gone. Night after night he sits on a sofa and sobs from a loss he'll never understand. On a Milwaukee street, Daisy spots her husband Paul with his young girlfriend. The girl smiles at Paul, she reaches up to kiss his mouth and Daisy sees it all: "She looked like such a happy girl, so happy to be there with that man, so obviously in love it made people watching smile to see. Even Daisy smiled." And, on a spring night in Maine, Dale rants, almost sick with fear and jealousy, because she is in love and the man she loves is having dinner with an old girlfriend. There are no simple answers here, no guarantees of happily-ever-after.
These are problems we understand, people we might know and worry about--will Daisy have to give up her house as well as her husband? Will Margaret ever bend enough to give comfort to her daughters? Will Dale and Hank work it all out and decide to get married? Nancy Thayer has the answers because she knows how certain things work: women and their houses, women and their children, women and their men. She must also know exactly what goes into a good stew, because she has set one before us here, rich and messy and, somehow, just right.