By Lauren Fox
Knopf. 256 pp. $24.95
Lauren Fox’s new novel, “Days of Awe,” starts with a funeral, but it’s a lot more nimble than that procession to the grave would suggest. Fox is a master of emotional misdirection, and what she presents here tastes like carbonated grief, an elixir of sorrow gassed up with her nervous humor.
The whole story takes place in the shadow of mourning. Isabel Moore, the narrator, has just lost her best friend, a delightfully irreverent woman named Josie. She was a fellow middle school teacher, but, more than that, she and Isabel were comrades in the futile battle against adult pomposity. They could count on each other for a deadpan joke or a subtle eye-roll; together they curated a collection of acerbic nicknames about their nemeses and cooed over each other’s “shiny jewels of resentment.” A maker of satirical feminist art — “the Venus de Milo as a guy wearing a beer hat” — Josie was a source of perpetual delight to Isabel. “You half expected the part of the room you were in to darken as a spotlight switched on and circled her with its glow.”
But that was before Josie’s car skidded off the road and slammed into a guardrail. Now, Isabel is left staring at “a confounding map of twisted, barely navigable roads that were long and tangled and led nowhere or doubled back without warning and ended up where they had begun.”
That’s also a fair description of this novel’s structure, which some readers may find too meandering, but I think it wisely reflects the trajectory of grief over “one tear-lubricated, misery-drenched, grief-addled dung heap of a year.”
In what might be her most mournful poem, Emily Dickinson spoke about the disorientation that comes “after great pain”: Time feels scrambled — “Yesterday, or Centuries before?” — and her “Feet, mechanical, go round —/ A Wooden way/ Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —/ Regardless grown.” As Fox moves through this story without any apparent destination, she captures that same numb spiral. So much for Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, the process of healing, the attainment of closure or any number of pat assumptions we make about how others — always others — should respond to personal tragedy.
With “Days of Awe,” Fox has created a winding internal monologue as Isabel tries to catch her bearings in a world that suddenly seems out of kilter. Her husband, so long a foundation of patience and devotion, has started to find her emotional drama intolerable. “There is a peculiar kind of terror you feel,” Isabel notes, “when the person you are closest to — for better or worse — begins to formulate the idea of a life without you.” What’s worse, their 11-year-old daughter is mutating into a monster of perpetual aggrievement: “mopey and dark and defiant.” Even Josie’s widower seems to be moving out of reach, so the loss of her favorite person seems cruelly timed with the loss of everyone else Isabel loves.
The novel unfolds as a disordered collection of memories before and after Josie’s death, as Isabel struggles to understand what happened to her friend and, by extension, to herself. The 19th-century theologian Mary Baker Eddy once said, “One marvels that a friend can ever seem less than beautiful,” and in a sense that’s the conundrum Isabel faces as she surveys the territory of their friendship and begins to note a subtle pattern of recklessness. At what point should her friend’s fondness for alcohol have raised a red flag? Was Josie’s comedy, her irreverence, her devil-may-care attitude entwined with a deadly strand of irresponsibility? Isabel is left wondering whether perhaps her friend’s shocking demise was, in fact, “more of an untethering: not a terrifying death spiral, but a slow loosening of the safety ropes.”
But that sounds far drearier than the actual experience of reading this novel, which is leavened with wry silliness that fans will remember from Fox’s previous novels, “Friends Like Us” and “Still Life With Husband.” Wearisome as Isabel may be to her long-suffering husband and her short-tempered daughter, she’s an extremely endearing narrator, the kind of woman who makes straight-faced jokes that her uptight colleagues don’t get, and then feels both superior and mortified. “How is it,” she wonders, “that, at forty-three, I still can’t read the room?”
Indeed, there are veins of Anne Lamott running through these pages, a sweet blend of sentimentality and wit. (Wondering where all her daughter’s stuffed animals have gone, Isabel asks herself, “Has there been some kind of teddy-bear Rapture?”) And Fox is a great comic on the subject of aging, too. Her narrator wears sweat pants that are “a blend of cotton and self-loathing.” She could be channeling Nora Ephron when she says, “I caught a glimpse of my upper arm in the mirror a few weeks ago, and it looked like my mother was in the bathroom waving to me.”
Speaking of her mother, she’s darkly hilarious, a survivor of the Holocaust who judges all of Isabel’s friends by how likely they would be to hide her in the attic. “Life goes on,” she reassures her daughter, “but only if you’re lucky.”
It’s advice that Isabel eventually learns to appreciate in this surprisingly buoyant novel. Life does go on, though not in the way she thought or even hoped it would. That’s sad. But promising, too.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.