Reviewed by Kathy L Brown
A nuanced, humane, and all-too-human exploration of life’s great mysteries: hope, death, and the love that lives on after we’re gone.
The finely drawn characters and everyday life’s minutia of Mrs. Alworth are made poignant by extraordinary circumstances. In an era in which Amanda’s leukemia diagnosis means certain death at an early age, the brilliant independent young woman makes a strange request: she wants to get married.
Not to a boyfriend, but rather a man she hardly knows; a young officer, Orest Alworth, who serves under her father in the Newark police department. And, perhaps even more strangely, Orest agrees.
The story is of their courtship, of sorts. While Mrs. Alworth is no romance novel, a prickly sort of friendship, mutual respect, and support system develop between the two. Amanda unravels enough of Orest’s past to discover a person as beset by “dis-ease” as she is and whose life is also in peril.
“In truth,” Amanda thinks, “between us, perhaps not sympathy, but empathy, as echoed in his blunt, unspoken retort: Listen to what I know, what I live with. My story, as sad and tragic and lonely as yours.”
Mrs. Alworth uses multiple first-person narrators to tell the story of Amanda and Orest’s brief life together. The style is engaging, and the voices distinct from one another, revealing each personality. All the characters are well-rounded, convincing, and lively. The reader really pulls for each to succeed. The most villain-like person in the story is Orest’s abusive aunt, but her motives are relatable, even if her decisions poor.
While this is a quiet novel of relationships and the impact of choices, conflicts abound, such as Amanda’s mother’s impulse to nurse her dying daughter rather than treat her like an independent adult. The reader roots for Amanda from page one as she challenges society, conventions, and her family.
As Orest’s backstory is revealed, we understand the enormity of his struggle to become any sort of functional person. And, of course, the give-and-take between Amanda and Orest in a most unusual, difficult, and ultimately heartbreaking situation is engrossing.
The question of the story seems to be, “How will Amanda and Orest’s marriage give purpose to her short life and meaning to her early death?” And, structurally, Mrs. Alworth appears to be Amanda’s story. But by the end of the book, the story equally (if not more) belongs to Orest.
The book’s themes include the bonds of family, the vagrancies of luck, and ravages of disease. In a narrative in which every word counts, names and titles mean quite a lot. Even the titulary “Mrs. Alworth” bears scrutiny. The first Mrs. Alworth we meet is Amanda, but a shade of Orest’s mother haunts his psyche. And the prospect of his potential remarriage—yet another Mrs. Alworth—is a running joke/not-a-joke between the young couple.
We become so invested in Amanda that her death may leave some readers disappointed. Orest fails Amanda in many ways; he gives a little but holds much back until it is too late. The reader feels that pain, too, which is a tribute to the book’s character development.
As Amanda tells us, “He turned away from me. Wanting, not entirely absent, not yet. A somewhat familiar anxiety returned. A temporary phenomenon? I did not care. Every- thing was temporary, for the sick and for the healthy, for those granted weeks, for those guaranteed decades.”
Amanda, her family, and Orest keep the marriage an absolute secret. The role of this plot device is eventually revealed, but it remains a manipulation at odds with the quality of the overall story.
Readers interested in sympathetic, fallible humans will enjoy the subtle and realistic portrayal of Amanda and Orest’s relationship. The themes and issues of Mrs. Alworth bear serious thought and discussion, making this an excellent book club selection.
Publisher: New Meridian Arts
Genre: Literary / Historical
Print Length: 226 pages
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