Is It Possible to Bounce Back from Horrific Losses?
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The first page of the book pulled me right into the story. It reads, “I was twenty-seven years old when I decided to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. One afternoon I had this great life. Half an hour later all I wanted was to be dead.” But the narrator can’t jump because she thinks back on something “Lenny” once said. “One thing about hard times, [he] had said once, when our rent check bounced the same week Arlo got sent home from day care with head lice and I came down with mono and a pipe burst in our apartment that destroyed a stack of drawings I’d been working on for six months. Once you hit bottom, things can only get better.”
So, from page one I needed to learn about Lenny and Arlo and the narrator’s artwork. I wanted to see what was so awful that suicide was a possibility. And I wanted to see if Lenny was right, if things would get better.
The story then follows the narrator, Joan/Irene, (you’ll find out why she has two names) across decades as she runs away from unspeakable losses. The reader soon finds out she has actually suffered two horrific losses, one as a child and one as an adult.
This is not historical fiction, but the author borrows a bit of history when she makes Irene the daughter of woman who was a member of the Weather Underground, an American radical left-wing militant organization, who were domestic terrorists in the early 1970’s. Several of their members were famously killed when a bomb they built exploded in the basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse.
Losses beyond this in adulthood cause Irene to be so adrift that she leaves the United States, though not exactly intentionally. She ultimately makes her way to a Central American village and to a hotel in the middle of nowhere that looked like paradise thanks to its lush gardens and 672 varieties of birds. Just one thing to mention, the hotel is at the base of a volcano that hasn’t erupted in hundreds of years though it glows at night and sometimes smoke escapes from it.
Immediately, I was reminded of Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, who said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” So, yes, the volcano erupts, but this is not much of a spoiler because lots of things happen – good, bad, and awful – in that village over the decades Irene lives there. Indeed, she comes to own the hotel. She inherits it from Leila who said this about the volcano: “It will [erupt] one day, of course, but I like to think that living this way, in the shadow of an active volcano, serves as a daily reminder of the preciousness of my days.”
Other very wise comments about life pop up regularly in the novel.
- Beyond the 672 varieties of birds, there are also magical fireflies that appear one night out of every year in the village. “They come out every year around this time. They put on the most amazing show for one glorious night, then disappear. It’s probably a good reminder. Nothing beautiful lasts forever. We need to take joy in what comes our way instead of mourning when it’s over.”
- After a hurricane we learn, “Nothing stays the same forever. Not gardens, or love affairs. Not joy, or sorrow either. Animals die. Children grow up. The thing you have to learn is to accept the changes when they come. Welcome them if you can. See what they bring to your life that wasn’t there before.”
- There were also various mentions of Love in the Time of Cholera and this quote from it: “It was the time when they loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other mortal trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.”
As we see from these quotes, Irene is working hard to prove Lenny right: Things would get better. Indeed, after decades of living life, Irene makes it to the other shore.
I liked the character of Irene a lot. I respected the many enormous challenges of her life. I rooted for her and I was pleased with the way the author tied up every last loose end to give a plausible ending.
Good book, Joyce Maynard!
Learn more about The Bird Hotel here on Amazon.
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