Sally Bellerose made my cry, but I forgive her. It’s been almost ten years since she did it to me with The Girls Club, so I figure we’re overdue. This time, however, mortality and loss seem to be uppermost in both our minds. Despite this solemnity, her latest novel, Fishwives, also contains joy, compassion, and history—but above all, it celebrates the endurance of love.
Regina and Jackie need to get rid of their old, dead Christmas tree, but as they are eighty-nine and ninety years old, respectively, said task is more difficult than usual. They enlist the help of some neighborhood kids, tie the thing to the roof of their car, and take it to the dump. Yes, that’s the plot—interspersed with flashbacks that send us as far back as how they met in 1955, illustrating the highs and lows of their life together.
The simplicity of the plot is in direct contrast to the complexity of the characters, and Bellerose reaches down deep to come up with two very complicated women. What I loved most about Regina and Jackie—outside of their age, which I’ll get to in a minute—is their extraordinary ordinariness. They scrape by, financially and emotionally. Their health is in danger. They have had trouble in their relationship as Jackie has an eye for the ladies. Yet the same experiences that have left them with no security or stability for their old age have provided them with a wealth of memories and friends. Moreover, they ponder whether or not the tradeoff has been worthwhile, a question that becomes more salient to me as I get older myself.
You don’t often see eighty-nine and ninety-year-olds as main characters, and when you do, they are usually only that age when they are narratively framing the story of a younger version of themselves. Bellerose does indeed use that device as she flashes back to various points in their lives, but I never felt as if Regina and Jackie’s elderly present was given short shrift for their youthful past. I haven’t read anything as age-empowering since Matt Kailey’s virtually unheard-of story of love in a nursing home, Our Day Will Come, by now out of print but well worth searching out used.
Other characters? Sure, there are other characters; chiefly Regina’s sister Lynn and the neighborhood kids who look after the ladies, not to mention the friends and lovers who populate many of the flashbacks, but truth be told, those were secondary for me. Regina and Jackie are the stars of this show, and when the inevitable happens (which is as close to a spoiler as I’m going to get), you will be devastated even though you see it coming a mile away.
Fishwives is a wonderful story with an incredible pair of fully realized and totally successful main characters you’ll remember long after you’ve finished the book. And if you get the urge to chastise the author for such a long wait between books, don’t. Stories as rich as this aren’t written in a year. Highly recommended.
© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler