Evening, by Susan Minot

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

(The 1st of 20 reviews of romance novels. I’m reading romance novels so I can learn how to better write about romance in my own works of fiction.)

In the early 1990s Susan Minot published some articles in Esquire magazine and I liked her stuff so I’ve been meaning to read some of her books. I was busy for the last 25 years, but I just finally got to reading her novel Evening.

Her focus is with the white upper-middle class of New England in the mid to late 20th Century, so she is covering ground also covered by writers such as John Updike and James Salter.

The story is in the style of Hemmingway’s “The Snows Of Kilamanjaro” — someone is dying and hallucinating and remembering their life as they die. However, The Snows Of Kilamanjaro is 10,000 words long, whereas Evening is almost 80,000 words. I wonder if this genre can really be stretched that far?

I’m aware of the fact that if I had read this book when it came out in 1998 I probably would have liked it very much. My tastes have changed, so perhaps if I have any criticisms, they are wholly a matter of personal preference.

There is a lot of rich imagery in this book. It’s like eating creme brulee, but 80,000 words of creme breuele is like a 5 course dinner where every course is dessert.

In particular, this woman’s hallucinations went on too long for me. About half way through the book I found myself skipping over them. The images were nice, but I wanted to read the story.

There was a good story in this book, about a romantic one night stand the woman had when she was 25 years old. The story is told in flashbacks, and broken up over the course of the book. There was enough good material in this book to make a fantastic short story, perhaps the size of The Snows Of Kilamanjaro.

I wonder, too, about imagery such as this:

She opened the door to a white-haired man in a light-colored suit standing on the porch. Behind him the shadows from the streetlight made a mottled pattern on the empty street and there was the occasional lit window hiding among the black leaves.

It’s a wonderful image but it has nothing to do with the story. Why include it? To show off the writer’s powers of observation? I do get that when you write a story about someone dying then simply recording how beautiful the world is can be part of the story. That is a point that is made clear in the story The Snows Of Kilamanjaro. But in this case, the image is not being seen by the person who is dying, so it seems pointless.

(Off topic: last year I read the novel “Everything Beautiful Began After”, by Simon Van Booy, and it was much worse in every way. It was full of images, which were not as good, it was much too long, and the main story that it told was not great, nor were the characters as rich as the one’s in Susan Minot’s novel. At least Minot gives us strong characters and a good story, even if that story is buried under too many words.)

Maybe I’ve lost my sense of humor? I’ve become overly-critical of the literature I read, just as I used to be overly-accepting. 20 years ago a friend would ask “Is this a good book?” and I would say “I loved it!” and then they would read it and they would say “It was boring!” and I realized I’d been overly-tolerant of its flaws. I seem to have come 180 on this, I don’t know why, or when. I am not reading as sympathetically as I used to. Of course, I’ve become much more critical of my own writing, too.

Maybe I am at risk of slipping into that dangerous place where I find all words superfluous, and demand writers strip down their writing, to the point where finally one has to ask, what is the point of writing fiction at all? If you just want a dry report of the facts, perhaps you should read non-fiction?

But that can’t be correct. Most non-fiction books, if tell a story (true crime, certain biographies), advertise themselves by boasting “Reads like a great novel!” So clearly, we all recognize that a great novel has something that we want.

I find myself wanting writing that is lean, and yet such writing can feel rushed, especially when one tries to do comedy, which always depends on pacing, and therefore needs to be slowed down.

Some readers would also complain that the high social status of the participants went unremarked, but I’m not even that demanding. If I was writing a story like this (and I’ve thought about it, regarding my father) I’d connect it to larger social themes, the history of the nation, etc, but I am not so political that I would say that you have to do that to have a good book. If Minot had cut 50% of the words out of this book, I would probably say it was great.

A final thought: we never really know how smart or stupid a writer is, so sometimes it is difficult to guess what they mean when a character does something dumb — is it the writer who is stupid, or the character? Minot seems smart, so we can assume the stupidity belongs to the character, but I am curious about the meaning of it. Ann Grant is dying at the age of 65 and she is remembering a a romance from 40 years earlier, a romance that lasted only 2 nights. I feel like I understand this kind of nostalgia: when I was 26 I had a brief romance with a woman who was 22, and it meant a lot to me, and I probably put too much weight on the memory for at least 10 years afterwards. But if I still viewed it as the unvarnished truth about my life, surely we would all judge me unwise?

In the story, Ann remembers the man, Harris Arden, as the great love of her life, even though she later has 3 husbands, and she has 5 children with 4 different men. This (viewing Arden as the love of her life) is a stupid thing to do, but I’m wondering what Minot meant by it. Is this part of dying, that we dream about the loves that almost were? Is this a way of telling us that Ann Grant was a poor judge of men, and in some sense a poor judge of herself? Ann Grant does not seem to realize how unwise it is to continue to fantasize about a man who did not love her as much as she loved him. Or is Minot trying to comment on something specific to women, the freedom of choice one has before the first child, the sense of fate stealing something from you? Or did Minot want this story to be read as the truth, that we sometimes meet someone, even just for an evening, and that person does become the great love of our life, the person we always have the strongest feelings for, even if we never see them again? I’m ambivalent about that reading of it. I’m not sure if that is what Minot meant, and if it was, I’m uncomfortable treating nostalgia as the truth.

Or maybe this was suppose to be a story about regret? I suppose that would work for me. Like everyone, I have my regrets. There are things I wish I had said to certain people at certain times. And perhaps when I’m on my death bed, I will think of all the things I regret. if that was Minot’s story, then she came close to telling it well.