I first heard of Diane Meier's novel The Season of Second Chances at Cornflower Books. The premise sucked me in and induced me to order the book from the library even before it made it onto my to-read list. The book has proved to be not quite what I expected, but something very interesting all the same.
Joy Harkness, Columbia professor who specializes in Henry James and Edith Wharton, is invited to move to Amherst, Massachusetts to participate in an experimental liberal arts program. She has no attachment to Columbia--no close friends, no romantic entanglements, an inconvenient apartment--and Amherst is offering more money than she thinks she deserves. So she goes. Impulsively (an adverb completely out of character for her), she buys a falling down but potentially beautiful house. She hires Teddy Hennessey to fix it up for her--he's 35 but essentially just a big kid, still living with his mother--and he does. The college and the town welcome her in, involve her in their personal dramas, force her to be more connected to other people than she's ever been before. She keeps expecting it to be over, life to go back to "normal", but by the end her definition of normal has changed.
The book has an unusual style. Joy narrates, and much of the story is told sort of anecdotally, even conversations. On the one hand, this is the first time I've ever read a first-person novel that I thought sounded like someone would actually tell a story. I've never liked first-person stories; I always think they feel contrived, but this didn't. On the other hand, this very second-hand way of hearing about events and characters makes it hard to really understand those characters and their motivations. I sometimes felt like people's appearances were over-described--Joy doesn't care much about clothes, so it seems odd for her to describe them in so much detail. Food also felt a little over-described, and so did the details of Joy's house, sometimes, though that is much more integral to the story and makes more sense. Over all, the writing was intriguing, and my complaints are fairly superficial.
Joy reminds me of no one so much as Helene Hanff. I've read a lot of Helene Hanff this year, and certain details--Joy's clothes, her gripes about her apartment, her voice--all reminded me quite forcibly of Helene Hanff. As with all good books, though, the comparison wore off because I got too wrapped up in the story to notice it. And there are certain differences, too.
I have a feeling I won't remember this as a "college book", though that was what drew me to it originally. It's about the characters and their interaction with each other, not their interaction with university life. This is very much a coming of age, feel-good book--so much so that I'm putting off reading another book that I suspect will have a similar feel until I've read something in between. It's very believable, and quite satisfying, with a fairly unpredictable ending. So over all, really very good.