Bookmonger: Evison novel offers up cruise to self awareness

“This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance” by Jonathan Evison

A cruise to Alaska turns out to be the trip of a lifetime for Harriet Chance – but that doesn’t mean all is smooth sailing for her in Jonathan Evison’s new novel, “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance.” As readers have come to expect from the Bainbridge Island author, Evison can wring extraordinary hilarity, pathos, and revelations out of characters who at first glance seem oh-so-ordinary.

Take 78-year-old Harriet, for instance. Widowed in the past year, she has just learned that her husband had bid on, won, and never gotten around to claiming a cruise in a local silent auction. Harriet likes her set routines, and she has no intention of redeeming the cruise ticket until a specter visits her and convinces her to go and take her best friend Mildred.

That specter is Bernard Chance, who is present in this novel both as a posthumous spirit who can be seen only by Harriet, and as her flesh-and-blood husband throughout their courtship and 55-year marriage.

True to the title, the plot of “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance” caroms around the decades, from Harriet’s birth in 1936 to her life in the present day. The droll narrator explains the jumpy format to the reader in this way: “The reflective mind is a pinball, pitching and careening, rebounding off anything it makes contact with.”

And so ping! – zing! – we zoom back and forth between incidents provisioned with trenchant detail (a Cuban cigar here, a Maytag washer there, colonnades of potted palms at the Sunny Acres retirement home) and gradually freighted with the aggregated “ruinous effects of time and familiarity.”

We begin to piece together the reasons this unremarkable old lady never earned more than an AA degree, the reasons she married Bernard, the reasons she doesn’t get along with her daughter Caroline, and the reason her friend Mildred winds up not accompanying her on the Alaska tour.

The narrator, of whom Harriet is perpetually unaware, functions like a one-man Greek chorus, alternately scolding, warning, sympathizing and cajoling. “The takeaway here, Harriet, is that there’s nothing wrong with you. You’ve got big ankles and an unhappy mother. You’re versatile and absorbent. You can do a lot with that, as a woman, or a paper towel.”

Poor Harriet doesn’t have the ghost of a chance at real happiness.

But wait a minute – there’s Bernard….

The setting for all of this introspection is a typical cruise ship with the typical clientele. It begins with Harriet’s hapless encounter with the customs agent before boarding – “Do I look like a terrorist to you? For heaven’s sake, I’m Episcopalian!” And it includes Evison’s deftly skewed takes on shipboard entertainment, tram rides, souvenir shops, fellow passengers, and the ship’s buffet.

But at Harriet’s age, and in her emotional state, this is no mere cruise – it is an all-out voyage. Her travel up the Inside Passage may be giving birth at long last to a new self-awareness.

“This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!” is another Evison tour de force.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. For more entertainment, go to BellinghamHerald.com/entertainment.


Jonathan Evison shares his new book, “This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!” at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11, at the Chuckanut Radio Hour at Whatcom Community College’s Heiner Center Theater, 237 W. Kellogg Road. Free.