Lives are made up of opportunities: some lost, others seized, many unrecognized, and many made out of misfortune. William Trevor’s stunning Two Lives tells the stories of two very different women, both of whom make something surprisingly uplifting out of deeply sad circumstances — not because they fully understand what they are doing, but because of love. I’ve been so engrossed in the book, I nearly forgot to prepare this reading list. I’m ashamed that I had never so much as seen Trevor’s name before my book club put it in front of me. A giant of modern Irish literature, Trevor knows how to make something breathtakingly powerful out of very small things; his style is quiet, as is his humor. There is a strange grandeur in these stories, however, whether in a love that subsumes a life without anybody else realizing it, or in a relationship of happenstance that might heal the edges of wounds too deep to close. The incisive simplicity of Trevor’s prose is both beautiful and gently compelling, touching rather than brutal, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to discover his work.
Two Lives puts opportunity in historical context, as does Fiction Co-Editor Kristina Riggle’s recommendation: “I’ve been reading both classics and historical fiction lately that make me think of a woman’s opportunities. We can chuckle at the preoccupation of the aristocratic woman trying to find a husband, say, in Downton Abbey on television or Pride and Prejudice — what could be more narrow and shallow? Yet women of these earlier times had few opportunities to control their own lives, even if they were blessed with material luxuries. I’m reading House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and the protagonist, Lily Bart, is at the center of a tightening circle as the men in her orbit have increasing control over whether she has enough money to exist, and whatever control over her destiny she once had is slipping through her fingers.”
Bonnie Pike, “Senior Mama” Columnist, muses on a more modern tale: “I can’t think of anything more moving on the subject of opportunity than Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis. Born in Iran in 1970, Satrapi records her impressions of the 1979 Revolution and the years of war with Iraq that followed. Her parents’ mutually respectful marriage and their encouragement of Satrapi’s free thinking clash with the strict Islamic fundamentalism of their society. In order to assure their daughter the freedom to complete her education and express herself without fear, her parents manage to send her to Austria, alone, at age 14. This is a vivid story of opportunity accomplished with sacrifice on the part of the entire family.”
Profiles Co-Editor Christina Consolino‘s selection highlights opportunity as a gamble: “Modern culture talks a lot about ‘seizing opportunities,’ as if simply being bold enough to do the seizing guarantees a successful outcome. In The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne are presented with an opportunity unlike any other they have experienced before. Tom, the caretaker of a lighthouse off the coast of Australia, has long wanted a family of his own. After several miscarriages and a stillborn baby, Tom and Isabel see a new chance when a healthy baby washes ashore in a boat. By choosing to raise the baby as their own, the Sherbournes define a future for themselves that brings pain, regret and heartbreaking sorrow. The story reminds the reader that any opportunity may involve unforeseeable and possibly detrimental repercussions.”
Caroline Grant, Editor-in-Chief, lightens our list with a more humorous take on our topic: “Drew Perry’s funny and wry new novel, Kids These Days, introduces us to Walter and Alice, a couple who are expecting their first baby: ‘And then I lost my job, Alice quit hers, and we moved, cart-wheeling and pregnant, five hundred miles south to a vacation condo her family owned to try to paste some shell of a life back together before the kid arrived. Florida. Like something heavy dropped on us from overhead.’ Walter winds up working for his brother-in-law, whose shady business dealings and unsteady parenting make Walter wonder about the opportunities that Florida — and fatherhood — present.”