Tag Archives: Maine

Five Days by Douglas Kennedy

“But the truth is, no matter how successful or happy you may consider yourself to be there is always a part of your life that is problematic, or deficient, or a letdown in some way.”

The blurb on the back cover of Five Days includes this:

Douglas Kennedy’s powerful new novel poignantly examines the death of hope, the limitless possibilities of love, and how the entire trajectory of a life can change through one brief encounter.

It’s interesting that the words ‘brief encounter’ appear as this is the film I thought of when I read Douglas Kennedy’s latest book, but while I’d class the 1945 film Brief Encounter as a romance, Five Days isn’t so easily pegged. Yes, there is romance in these pages, but primarily this is a story of how one very unhappy 41-year-old woman faces her unhappiness and decides to do something to change her life. five daysLaura is a married Radiology Technician who works at a hospital in Damariscotta, Maine, and here between the hours of 9-5, she performs scans on patients sent to her as part of the diagnostic  sequence. It’s my personal belief that you can’t work in this sort of job without it impacting your thoughts about life & death, and this is certainly true of Laura who sees people who are dying of cancer on a daily basis. Not that Laura is the one that breaks the news, of course, but she is, nonetheless part of the sequence of events. She’s always been able to handle her job, but lately the job has been getting to her, and she’s internalizing the results: euphoric when nothing is found, and tearful when the scans yield positive results. Peel back a few layers of Laura’s life, and it’s easy to see that her marriage is unhappy and unsatisfying. Add two troubled teenagers to the mix. Trouble then is on the horizon when Laura heads off solo to a conference in Boston where she meets Richard Copeland, a 50-something insurance salesman who is just as unhappy as she is…..

Five Days illustrates perfectly that affairs do not occur in the real world. They exist in a bubble–a very special, fabricated place that is not hampered by everyday concerns, and the novel does an excellent job of showing how very much easier it is for Laura to communicate with a brand-new person who shares a great deal of her interests instead of trying to discuss anything with Dan, her long-term unemployed, depressed husband of over 23 years.

So far so good.

As a protagonist, Laura is an irritating, insufferable human being–nothing wrong with reading about insufferable people, of course, as they can be a lot of fun (thinking Kingsley Amis here), but when they’re supposed to garner our sympathy and our subsequent interest in the character’s journey of self-discovery, it helps if that character is sympathetic, and if this transaction doesn’t occur, then something different happens.  The alarm bells initially went off for me with Laura’s character early in the novel when she described her competency at diagnosing cancers, and the alarms were loud and clear when she reveals the “shock” and “hurt” she feels after discovering that her now-deceased mother had an ectopic pregnancy years earlier. And this sums up in a nutshell Laura’s central issue as a character for this reader.; other people’s death sentences are her tragedy; her mother’s inability to have more children is somehow a personal betrayal. Laura is self-focused and egotistical even while she’s presented as suffering from a general lack of affection from an obtuse, depressive, dull and uninspiring spouse. Listening to Laura became a bit like listening to a work acquaintance complaining about her home life even as you, the audience, silently feel a bit sorry for the poor sod at home.

Laura is a RT but has long-buried dreams of being a doctor with long slow hints of why that didn’t happen. The first person narrative goes back and forth in time, and Laura’s story of just what went wrong with those dreams is gradually revealed. She ‘settled’ for Dan, and it seems that there’s no intellectual spark between them. No matter. When she meets Richard, the sparks fly in an egoistical word-play exchange. I’m not sure that people really talk like this, and if I’m wrong and then they do, they are obnoxious. Here’s Laura and Richard discovering their mutual love of synonyms

“He initially had a business partner–Jack Jones. A fellow Marine. Unlike my father, Jack actually liked people. Don’t know what he was doing in business with my father, as Jack was a genuinely happy-go-lucky guy and Dad was kind of dyspeptic about life.”

“I like that word: dyspeptic.”

” ‘Bilious’ would also be a good descriptive word as well. ‘Liverish’ might also fit the bill.”

“How about ‘disputative’?”

“A little too legal, I think. Dad was a misanthrope, but never litigious.”

I looked at him with a new interest. “You like words,” I said.

“You’re looking at the Kennebac County Spelling Bee champion of 1974, which is kind of Middle Ages now, right? But once you get hooked on words you don’t really ever lose the habit.”

This sort of thing goes on for a while–a sort of word-one-upmanship, and the mental/sexual sparks flying through the air which each new posturing.

“Okay, I give you that. How about ‘abrogatory’?”

“Now you’re getting too fancy. ‘Approbative.’ “

“That’s not fancy? Sounds downright florid to me.”

“Florid isn’t ‘aureate.’  “

“Or ‘Churrigueresque’? he asked.

Five Days certainly has its merits; it is a page turner and at its best when conveying the unreality of an affair when compared to the ever-present tensions of home and responsibility. Life can throw a lot of unexpected disasters at anyone, but two middle-aged people discussing their disappointments, loneliness, unfulfilled dreams of literary fame, and past glory of long-gone college days has never been exactly an up experience. Here it’s an angst-filled odyssey into some depressing territory. I’ve been meaning to read a Douglas Kennedy novel for some time as I have seen a few films based on his books: The Woman on the Fifth (disliked it), Welcome to Woop Woop (one of my favourite cult films), The Big Picture (excellent). Perhaps Five Days was the wrong place to start, and I may very well be the wrong reader for the book as my sob-o-meter isn’t exactly a sensitive instrument. So, if any Kennedy readers out there would like to recommend one of his titles, I’ll give it a go.

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Reunion at Red Paint By by George Harrar

“You don’t erase yourself at every stage of life. Human personalities develop in layers, one on top of the other. Scratch one layer, you can see what’s below.”

In George Harrar’s novel, Reunion at Red Paint Bay, when Simon Howe, owner and editor  of the only newspaper in the small town of Red Paint, Maine begins receiving anonymous postcards that bear cryptic messages, he doesn’t take it too seriously. At first he thinks the postcards might be a mistake, but then as the cards continue to arrive, Simon’s therapist wife, Amy senses danger while Simon is merely amused.  He can’t imagine that he’s “somehow fallen into a cliché mystery novel.” After all nothing ever happens in Red Paint, a small picturesque town, 4 miles by 3 miles with a population at just over 7,000 people–a place that calls itself “the friendliest town in Maine.” Everyone seems to know one another, and this is the sort of town where people don’t worry about locking their front doors. The last murder took place twenty years before, and there are times when Simon finds it difficult to drum up enough newsworthy stories to fill the paper. This is a town where stories about someone losing a toe and a sighting of the Virgin Mary in a pile of sand make the front page.

Reunion at red paint bayAs the cards continue to arrive, it becomes increasingly obvious that the sender has an agenda which involves Simon. Amy, who works with the female survivors of rape, theorizes that whoever is sending the cards is out for revenge. The repetitive nature of the cards appears to have a payoff for the sender:

Revenge is often elaborate. That’s part of its appeal. You get to enjoy it over and over again as you plan it.

At first Simon can’t imagine himself as the object of revenge, but over time, he mentally lists all those who he may have offended over the years, and to his surprise, they are quite a few candidates who might wish him harm. As Simon and Amy feel a growing threat, we see fragmented glimpses of the man who has sent the postcards. He becomes bolder and bolder as he circles Simon, awaiting the perfect moment. Meanwhile as all of this goes on, the town readies itself for a 25 year high school reunion….

Reunion at Red Paint places us immediately in the lives of Simon and Amy Howe. These are people who’ve chosen small town life for a reason, and Red Paint is Simon’s hometown, a place he’s returned to even though he may have given up the chances of a better career. Simon is a wonderful husband and father, but is he all that he seems to be? Shortly after the novel opens, there’s a marvellous scene as husband and wife order a meal for their son at the drive-in window at Burger World. This seemingly simple scene sets the stage to show a division–a divide of communication and true thought processes, for while Amy chides her husband for not being friendly enough with the waitress, Simon has a sneaking desire to go check out the face and the body behind the attractive voice. This scene sets up the novel’s underlying theme: how well do we really know anyone?

Although the novel may appear to be a stalker thriller, and it certainly starts as that, this is not an adequate description. Yes, there are moments of gripping intensity, but in the final analysis, the novel turns in a much more thoughtful, psychological direction and morphs into something unexpected and even creepier as we are faced with some big questions about guilt, remorse and atonement. While the meshing of these two elements: thriller and drama are not always successful, nonetheless, the story generates a lot of issues for discussion regarding the chilling ability to create stories and versions of our lives that in the telling become more acceptable and fit the version of the person we’d like to be. I’d recommend this novel to people who enjoy the novels of Ruth Rendell.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Harrar George