Book review: Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

If we’re really paying attention to the various stages of our life, and they’re hard to miss if you’re looking for them, it will become glaringly obvious that we change a great deal between the very beginning of things and the (hopefully many years distant) and their end.

For some of us the changes are gradual and slow, a slow evolution from one place and person to another; for others like Evvie Drake, the eponymous protagonist of Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes, the passage from one state of being to another is dramatic, a shift so sudden that you almost get whiplash reacting to it.

In her case, it is the death of her husband which changes everything, an event so swift and unyielding in its remorseless capacity for upsetting the applecart of her life that she has no choice but to go along with the resulting deviation from the expected course of her life.

Everyone, including her best friend Andy (proof that men and women can just be friends, When Harry Met Sally-style … or not) and the parents of beloved town doctor and golden child Tim, think she is grieving, a reasonable assumption in the normal scheme of things.

But there’s a great deal about Evvie’s life that she hasn’t chosen to reveal to people, and Tim’s passing, while outwardly cataclysmic, does not wreak quite the havoc on Evvie’s life that her family and friends think it does.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t affect her in some fairly significant ways but they are not the ways that people think and suppose and so Evvie is stuck in a half-lived existence, trapped between what people think she is experiencing and what is actually happening to her, and so entombed in the sealed-off, unspoken truth of her life, that she can’t address either thing with any sort of liberating authenticity.

“By the clock on the cable box, it was 4.23 A.M. She closed her eyes. It had been almost a year since Tim died, and she still couldn’t do anything at all sometimes, because she was so consumed by not missing him. She could fill up whole rooms with how it felt to be the only person who knew that she barely loved him when she’d listened to him snoring lightly on the last night he was alive. Monster, monster, she thought. Monster, monster.” (P. 11)

If this sounds like the perfect setting for a romantic comedy, you would be right.

But what makes Evvie Drake Starts Over such a compelling read is that Holmes, who presents the Pop Culture Happy Hour on National Public Radio in the States, and who thus presumably knows a thing or two about what makes an engaging rom-com, doesn’t follow quite the expected pattern of love second time around.

The romance between Evvie, and Dean Tenney, a onetime professional baseball player whose ability to pitch a ball like no other seemed to evaporate overnight, may proceed in the manner dictated by rom-com tropes down through the ages but Holmes invests with far more resonance and affecting substance than is often the case in the genre.

There is whimsy and romance, smart, clever dialogue and a gentle drawing together of two lost people who make a pact to know discuss each other’s elephant in the room – Evvie, a dead husband and Dean, a no-longer-existent pitching ability – until, of course, they do.

But there is also a sense of expectations being defied in real and tangibly-grounded ways, of two people coming to grips with the fact that life, as people assume it should be lived, doesn’t follow prescribed rules, no matter how much we might will it to, and that perhaps standing up against presumption and expectation isn’t such a bad thing after all (and perhaps you’re not the monster you thought you were because you can’t stomach the lies and the playacting. trapped as you felt by social strictures over which you have no control).

Who knows where it might take you?

Linda Holmes (image courtesy official Linda Holmes Twitter account)

Pretty much anywhere, which is the gloriously liberating point of it, but in Evvie Drake Starts Over that somewhere involves Evvie taking stock of decisions she had made, many of them precipitated by some dark and terrible, and yes, not talked about circumstances, and choosing to go other far more wonderful and life-affirming places altogether.

It may all sound Hallmark-worthy twee, but while there are elements of perfect rom-com wish fulfilment that will delight your reality-defying soul, there is also much that feels very real and truthful.

Dean and Evvie are two people, Evvie especially, who are facing up to some very unpalatable circumstances in their respective lives and who can’t simply flick a switch to make things better.

Both are hemmed in to varying degrees by people’s assumptions and expectations, a noose that tightens appreciably with every acquiescence to the established order of things but Evvie Drake Starts Over begins, piece by piece to make it clear that we are only as imprisoned as we allow ourselves to be.

That doesn’t mean, of course that one quick decision and everything is made better; life doesn’t work like that and Holmes is too insightful and nuanced a writer to go down such an unsatisfyingly fanciful road.

“They looked directly at each other, and Evvie briefly considered grabbing both keys off the table, hooking her fingers through Dean’s belt loops, and dragging him upstairs so fast that he’d still be holding his wineglass when she ripped his shirt off. But just then, the waitress reappeared, and she realized that neither of them had given a moment of thought to what they were going toe at. ” (p. 200)

Evvie Drake Starts Over is rather all about life’s unforeseen pleasures sneaking up and enveloping us in ways that, eventually, if we’re open to them, can change us and our lives for the better but not without some tough decisions and painful dawning of self-awareness.

The epiphanies, if you can call them, that Evvie particularly goes through in her picture-perfect though not idealised Maine coastal town aren’t easy ones; they lead to good places but the getting there, the really getting there, takes a whole lot of digging down through painful pasts and lost opportunities and you have to be brave to go there.

Not everyone is that brave, certainly not Evvie (named after Eveleth, Minnseota in case you’re wondering) or Dean at first, but as life brings them each other and the possibility of something more beyond what they have known, they begin to be emboldened to dig down, confront the truth and make the changes that might take somewhere altogether wonderful.

Evvie Drake Starts Over is a delightfully heartfelt, smartly written novel that pivots beautifully and with intelligence and grace between rom-com confection and real-life moments, offering a tale of second chances that rewards its readers with the possibility of life reborn without condescending to pretend there won’t be pain getting to that storied place of renewal and hope.

The novel is a very clever, touching read that will enchant and charm you even as it makes you think and wonder about how you would handle life offering you a chance at a second or a third act, knowing that getting to that place may not be as fairytale perfect as you might wish it to be.

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