EXIT LINES by Joan Barfoot (Knopf), 320 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
We reviewers get into all kinds of trouble when we read books about things that matter to us in profoundly personal ways. Everything seems meaningful, every perception dead on, every insight almost too deep.
So I picked up Exit Lines tentatively. It's about elders living at a retirement home, and having moved my own parents into just such a facility almost four years ago, I feared it would hit too close to home. It did.
The story tracks four residents - brought to life via Barfoot's enormous empathy - who have just moved into the new Idyll Inn. Greta has a heart condition, three daughters and one big secret. Sylvia, the one blessed with privilege, has arthritis, a well of bitterness and an even bigger secret. George has had a debilitating stroke, leaving him with a powerful rage and a soft spot for a daughter who's moved far away. Ruth, the Children's Aid worker with osteoporosis, once wanted to save kids but now has lost interest in life.
Together they form an unusual friendship, one that Ruth tests with a painful request that gives the book its tension.
But while the characters' dilemmas are deftly conveyed - George's initial stroke is explicitly described in all its terror - and the thriller aspect keeps the pages turning, it's Barfoot's evocations of the retirement home's everyday boredom, its daily indignities, its forced convivialities, especially around this time of year, that moved me.
Barfoot totally gets it. I'm that daughter in the author's gaze who thinks I'm noble because I visit once a week for two hours that feel like a nanosecond to my mother. And I'm the one whose face, just as Barfoot describes it, floods with relief as I walk out the door.
Exit Lines hits hard.
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