Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Book review: Seven Year Switch by Claire Cook
Seven Year Switch: Revision In Life
I'd never heard of Claire Cook before I read a blurb about her novel, Seven Year Switch. The blurb stated "every seven years you become a completely new person," and went on to say Seven Year Switch was a novel about "accepting who you are and growing into who you want to be" (NY:Voice; June 8, 2010; Hardcover blurb). That grabbed my attention. While I don't know that I can agree with the seven year time frame, I do recognize that there are definitely moments when you stop to evaluate who and what you are and give thought to revision.
When I taught composition, it was important to make my students understand the difference between editing and revision. I'd write the word "revision" on the blackboard and ask them to tell me what it meant. Then I'd write "re -- about" and "vision -- sight" and explain that revision is the act of going back through what we've written and trying to see it again as if it was new. In revising, I told them. we would be asking ourselves if we had communicated what we intended and how we might improve upon what we had done.
It seems to me the same thing happens in life. You reach a time and place, perhaps triggered by a specific event, perhaps without any identifiable trigger, and you stop and ask yourself if you've become the person you wanted to be. You think about how you see yourself and wonder how others see you. You ask yourself whether you are living the life you planned, the life you want. You evaluate what you find, decide whether or not you are satisfied with what is. If you aren't happy with what you find, then you begin to ask what you're going to do about that.
Cook's main character, Jill Murray, once had a promising career teaching business executives how to communicate with other cultures, a loving husband, and an adorable three-year-old daughter. Then one day her dream life fell apart when her husband, bored with the safe domestic routine, abandoned her and their daughter to go in search of adventure. With no support of any kind from her husband, Seth, Jill had to forge ahead and create a new life for her and her daughter. The daughter, Anastasia, becomes the hub around which Jill's world revolves. Every decision Jill makes is based on her desire to do the best for her daughter.
Jill is a very believable character one can identify with. She's a strong woman who refuses to let misfortune get her down, even if only because she knows Anastasia has no one but her to depend upon. She takes a job answering telephones for a travel agency called Great Girlfriends Getaways, a little ironic because she hasn't got time for girlfriends. The only "girlfriend" time she allows herself is that spent with the owner of the travel agency, Joni, and her next-door neighbor, Cynthia. Jill fills her time taking care of Anastasia and making ends meet. She is admirably innovative turning her interest in other cultures into a series of Lunch Around The World cooking classes she teaches at the community center, and some business consulting services. This is a woman who learned how to survive but she's just surviving, not living. There is no money to buy herself any of the cute outfits her neighbor wears, and no time to hang out with girlfriends or to date. Still, seven years after her husband's departure, Jill looks around at the modest home she managed to purchase and her darling daughter and makes peace with what is. Her life isn't what she planned but she can feel good that she has found her own way.
Then one day, at the community center, Jill looks up and finds Seth standing there and all the conflicting feelings towards him surface. Seth offers a pathetic excuse for his disappearance and announces he wants to come back into their lives; he wants to see their daughter. Jill is torn between wanting to tell him to disappear again for good and giving her daughter a chance to know her father. Finally, she does what she's been doing these past seven years, she puts Anastasia's needs first. Once Seth is reunited with his daughter, Jill knows he will be a part of their lives from then on in one way or another.
The question for Jill then becomes can she revert to being the woman she was before Seth left? Can she continue being who she became afterwards? or does she need to once again revise her life. Through her business consulting, Jill had just met an intriguing man named Billy Sanders who crafts designer bicycles and wants to develop a Japanese market for them. For the first time in seven years, she is tempted by the promise of more than a fleeting relationship. Billy, like Seth, isn't what you would call "main stream," but unlike Seth, he isn't self-centered. Billy is warm, level-headed, caring. Jill is amazed as he discusses the relationship he has with his ex-wife, her new husband, and her sons. And she is touched that he understands she needs to take things slowly.
Cook's depiction of Jill's struggle to move on and work towards the life she really wants is believable and touching. Revision is never an easy chore but can be a valuable experience. I enjoyed the way Cook worked in a metaphor about surfing and life as Jill and Billy look towards their future. Surfing, she says, like life is "fun, but also a lot harder than it looks. . . . the trick is to use the calm between the waves to position yourself for the next one" (NY:Voice; 2010; 233). And to help readers make the most of that calm, Cook concludes her novel with a page entitled "PASSPORT To Your Next Chapter" where she shares seven tips for your own revision. You might not find any of these new or surprising but it's good to be reminded of each.
Cook crafts a fine novel filled with sympathetic, believable characters, and has a wonderful comedic touch as well. There is an episode near the end of the novel where Jill borrows one of Cynthia's Spanx products that is not to be missed. I laughed until I cried.
Thank you, Claire Cook, for a fun read, for an insight into one (fictional but so real) woman's revision, and for reminding us of the value of friendship.
You can buy Seven Year Switch here: