This is one of those rare books that evoked a physical reaction from me, not just at the end of the novel, but throughout the entire thing. While I was reading it, I felt an achey, tender, sadness in my gut. I could feel my heart beating through most of it. There were moments so intimate and perfectly rendered that I had to put the book down and take deep breaths before continuing.
Griffin does not shy away from writing about what most of us fear: old age, sickness, isolation. Wendell and Frank met and fell in love in rural North Carolina after World War II, and cut themselves off from the world in order to be together. Sixty years later, in their eighties, Frank has a stroke, and Wendell is forced to take care of him alone, as they both wrestle with what they’ve given up for each other.
The acute tenderness, the vulnerability, the honesty, the exquisite detail–it is all astounding. There were countless scenes that blew me away, quietly, with their fearless portrayal of the realities of aging and illness. I’m still thinking about many of those e moments, months later–Wendell washing Frank, the two of them eating dinner, Frank in the living room talking to the dog. The intimacy was almost too much at times; as the reader, it felt almost as if I was intruding.
The love between the two men was palpable, but so was the regret, the hurt, the sorrow. Partnership is complicated, and this book illuminates that beautifully. It’s one of the most haunting, gorgeous and truthful depictions of marriage and old age that I have ever read.
The decisions we make in life are rarely straightforward or easy. They have consequences–good, bad, unexpected. Messages like “love conquers all” and “happily ever after” are everywhere we look, in media and television and literature. This novel beautifully cuts through the heart of all those myths. Love is much more complicated than “happily ever after”. Griffin is not afraid to dive into that complexity: he lets Wendell and Frank have contradictory, nuanced, and sometimes conflicting desires without ever cheapening their choices or their love for each other.
And though there was deep queer suffering in this novel–these men decided to literally give up the world for each other–it never felt gratuitous or cliched. It was hard to read, but it never felt cheap. At times, I simply cannot take all the queer suffering, the endless killing off of queer folk, that happens all over literature. But this is one of those books that was worth it, despite how hard it sometimes was to read. It had something important to say, a story that couldn’t have unfolded any other way.
A last bonus aside: it’s not often I come across pets in fiction that are as perfectly drawn, believable, and vital as the dog in this novel.