Set near San Francisco, this warm and funny novel follows the fortunes and failures of Jack and Milly for sixty years. They marry in 1952, and typical of post-war couples, shift up a class. Optimistic and full of plans, they see themselves living the American Dream. Through the years they cling to each other despite having little in common. But the clinging doesn’t always preclude infidelity or disappointment, and the social changes they live through impact on their relationship in complex and surprising ways. Ultimately, though, what holds them together is stronger than what pulls them apart. This is a love story that tells the truth – or one or two truths – about love and marriage.
After reading this book, it’s my opinion that any couple who goes to a church or registry office to enquire about getting married should be handed a copy of this novel. Because from it they will learn – marriage is tough. People change. You may have lots in common when you marry, at 25, 35, 45, but as you evolve as a person your partner may evolve in an entirely different way. And by then you might have children. Do you stick it out, for their sakes? Or do you think, “I’ve only got one crack at life,” and move on, justifying it by saying children are better with two happy parents living separately than an unhappy couple in the same house? (I do agree with that, if you’re both really unhappy, and there are constant rows.) And, of course, as we’re all (hopefully!) living longer these days, it’s not inconceivable that a marriage could last 60+ years, whereas a couple of hundred years ago 40 years was probably regarded as a lengthy marriage.
Wait For Me, Jack is a novel about a marriage where the couple realise, fairly quickly into the marriage, that they really don’t have a great deal in common, apart from mutual attraction – they both sound gorgeous in their youth. It’s told backwards, so we first meet Jack and Milly when they’re in their 80s. Then, at intervals ranging from eighteen months to three years, we step back and see them: elderly, frail and alone; to their children grown and setting off on their own lives; to when the family grew initially – we see all the challenges they face. It’s this Benjamin Button-ish backward structure that makes it so exceptionally original and enjoyable. I know it sounds like a very un-crimeworm-like novel, and normally I’d say it is, but it’s a novel I think everyone interested in relationships and people – which is pretty much all of us, I think – would more than enjoy.
On the side, we get a social history of the major events in the USA, and also understand how this very different couple – Jack’s educated, works in publishing, considers himself cultured, and isn’t entirely faithful; Milly’s happy just being a wife with a family and a home, and loves her soap operas once they have a TV – get together, and, more importantly, stay together. They have a family, and pick up three extra children on the way amidst tragedy, and heartbreak, bringing them into the fold pretty much uncomplainingly – this is primarily Milly’s doing, at least with two of them, but she has Jack’s support. The third (part-time) addition to the family, well, that’s a story in itself, which only demonstrates again Milly’s huge heart.
It also, obviously, is a book about ageing, and the fact that there comes a point – particularly for Jack – when you realise the life you dreamed of is very rarely what you get.
I guess a lot of what I took from it is how much damn hard work the American Dream was for that generation, and the fact that they weren’t going to throw the towel in, Goddamnit, they’d get through it – they’d got through wars, after all, hadn’t they? It also, unsurprisingly, demonstrates how easy men had it – “Pass me a beer, Milly, gee, what a day I’ve had!” Yet she never complains about her huge workload (although of course he does about his!)
It’s an often sad, sometimes funny, yet ultimately uplifting book, and beautifully written (I can’t imagine how long it took to write.) It’s wonderful, and, by the end, well, that title broke my heart.
My thanks to Sandstone Press, who provided me with a copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.