You Could Be Home by Now by Tracy Manaster

Point me in the direction of a novel set in a retirement or gated community, and there’s a good chance I’ll read it. Take Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows–a novel set in an affluent Argentinian community whose residents are not as immune to the imploding economy as they think. Then earlier this year I read Pascal Garnier’s fantastic Moon in a Dead Eye about a handful of French retirees who discover that a gated community is not the healthy, safe choice they imagined.  Eli Gottlieb’s novel Now You See Him  brings an Arizona retirement community into focus, and this brings me to Tracy Manaster’s novel You Could Be Home By Now set in The Commons, a luxury retirement community located outside of Tucson, Arizona.

you could be home by nowThe gently humorous You Could Be Home by Now is partly about life inside the retirement community, but the main thrust of the novel is grief–how we cope with it, how we live with it, and whether or not we move on from tragedy.  The number one rule of The Commons is that no permanent resident can be under age 55, and the novel’s central dilemma revolves on the discovery that one of the residents is now the guardian of a small child. This discovery raises a debate, subsequent moral questions, and creates opposing camps within the community, but even more than that, the discovery of the child causes simmering emotions and tensions to explode.

But let’s back up a bit. The novel begins with Seth and Alison Collier, two young, married teachers, working at the same Vermont school, who after the loss of their baby, decide they need a fresh start. They toss aside their old lives and, on a whim, relocate to Arizona when they accept jobs at The Commons–a luxury “cart accessible,” retirement community of over six thousand residences with two golf courses and “three convenient villages for all your shopping, entertainment, and social needs.” Hoagie Lobel, President and CEO of The Commons employs the Colliers–Seth to run the community newspaper and Alison to be the town historian. Of course, there’s a bit of a problem with getting history for a newly constructed town.

The houses were all flat roofs and projecting beams, sand-colored stucco, corners rounded to benign nubs. They devoured their lots and the trees were all spindly and new.

“I don’t see any For Sale signs,” Alison said. “I guess you haven’t been hard hit by this real estate mess?”

“HOA doesn’t allow them. Messes with the neighbors’ heads.” Lobel tapped his temple. “But we’re doing alright. Had to postpone work on Phase IV, but what’s already built… well, most folks bought to live here, right? And that’s why you’re here, see. We’re going to add to that whole experience.” Lobel drew out the word. “Tough times hit and people like living in a real place. Like be a part of that place. So we get our own paper. And you—” he turned to Alison. The cart drifted into the neighboring lane. “You, Miss, you’ve got to add some authenticity to our town. Some history when there’s really none.”

While Seth and Alison begin by being central characters, they’re very quickly pushed aside as we are introduced to various residents. Benjamin, for example, is a divorced retired veterinarian, whose ex-wife, Veronica aka Ronny and ex-home are still in Portland. Benjamin relocated for a fresh start.  He plans for an active retirement in the sun, far away from his old life and his old problems, and The Commons fits the bill.  It’s through Ben that we really get a sense of life in The Commons and why it’s a gold-plated living arrangement for retirees:

The layout of the cart paths made it a huge pain in the rear to shop off site, so most folks didn’t bother. Ben Thales did though. Eggs were fifty cents a dozen cheaper at the Wal-Mart across the way. Chicken breasts too, almost a dollar less a pound. And it had been a close eye on his money that got him here in the first place. Golf twice a week, tennis twice a week.

Most of the residents drive everywhere on golf carts–the place was designed that way. The residents are in the same income bracket, golf-aficionados and there are widows aplenty.

The novel’s theme: surviving grief is played out in three story strands. Benjamin and his wife, now-ex-wife, Ronny had a daughter, a junkie, who disappeared years before. Her absence helped contribute to the demise of their marriage, and even though they are divorced, they still retain a PI who rakes over the long since cold trail of the missing daughter. Another grief thread is played out through Seth and Alison. They’re attracted to The Commons because they think that a new environment will allow them to heal and forget and that in a retirement community “they could jog down the streets of a town without strollers.” Seth and Alison learn the hard way that you can’t run away from your problems.

The final story thread that ties into surviving grief concerns recent widow Sadie whose granddaughter, Lily arrives in The Commons to spend a few months with her grandmother. It’s through this relationship that author Tracy Manaster does a good job of showing that the generations need each other. Sadie and Lily discover a healthy rapport that grounds them both, and it’s through this relationship and the uproar involving a resident child that the reader begins to question the nature of ‘perfect’ retirement communities in general. While this was a pleasant read, a couple of scenes rang false; Seth and Alison’s abrupt change of career tested credulity, a couple of the meltdowns seemed unlikely, and teenage Lily was a little too sharp and wise-cracking for my tastes.

Review copy.

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10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Manaster Tracy

10 responses to “You Could Be Home by Now by Tracy Manaster

  1. What is it about you and retirement communities or gated communities? Although I agree that they make fascinating reading – as does any closed, cocooned community.

  2. Just a lurid fascination. Can’t imagine why anyone would want to live in one.

  3. Sometimes I think Sartre would have set No Exit in a gated community if such things had existed at the time.
    This setting has potential for writers, it’s obvious.
    To me, it seems so sad to be too afraid of living in the read world and choose a place where no people under 55 are allowed.

  4. Haha Guy, your opening sentence made me laugh. I probably feel the same though I haven’t seen enough such books to articulate that. I can’t think right now of any retirement community books I’ve read, and the only gated community I can think of is the one in The tortilla curtain which is one of my unforgettable books.

    Wait till you’re 70 or so Emma and see what you think then! I’m not in a retirement community yet, though I’ve passed 55, and I may never be, but having seen my MIL in one I can see many advantages: services geared to your needs (including transport when you get to the stage that you can’t or prefer not to drive, ability to join or set up easy to access interest groups, etc), company of people who share your world (so many old people become very lonely, despite having supportive families, because their peers have died), and safety (not just from people meaning to do you harm but the rushing of people oblivious of your slower moving ways). The best retirement communities though make it easy to mix with other generations I think.

    • The Tortilla Curtain –that’s TC Boyle right? Haven’t read that yet but would like to.

      I see your points and they are well taken. Over here my impression is that those communities are too tone-y for my tastes and too rigid. The book shows that the rules of this particular community don’t really encompass today’s social problems and I think that part is well done.

      • Yes, TC Boyle. I’d recommend it though it has been 20 years since I read it, so take that into account. My glasses may be rosy!

        The communities I know here aren’t “tone-y” in that they’re not like the ones I’ve heard about in, say, Florida. The ones I’ve seen here are smaller, more cosy — but I have a suspicion that tonier ones are around or coming.

  5. Your opening sentence made me smile too, and the gated-community setting has great potential for fiction. As you know, I loved Moon in a Dead Eye, and the Piñeiro is in my TBR. As for the Manaster, the social and relationship issues sound interesting, but it’s a shame a few scenes/characters didn’t quite ring true.

  6. I was going to write that I laughed at your first sentence but then I saw others said the same thing! I guess that these separated communities are nice little experiments that tell us something about the world and of people.

    The small child added to such a community is really a clever plot device.

  7. I had the same thought as Marina Sofia about you and gated communities! I agree too with Brian about the small child being an interesting addition. I don’t think anything disturbs the manufactured or settled-for calm of a life quite like a child. It does me think of human chess-pieces being moved around by a novelist, and I wonder if your reservations in the last paragraph reflect that too-overt thematic management.

  8. You have a knack to track these books down. I have a horror of gated communities but whisepringgums comment makes me think that there may be big differneces between US based and others of the type. Those you describe always sound a bit Disney for the elderly. Very artificial and cutesy. Brr. But that aside – novels set in such communities obviously have their appeal.

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