Dear Evelyn is the story of a long marriage (over 70 years), and how that marriage and the individuals involved change over the years; sometimes in a good way, often not, but always in a way that is moving and complex.
Harry and Evelyn meet and fall in love right before the Second World War, so the first several years of their marriage are spent enduring long months apart, interspersed with periods of hard-core passionate togetherness. When they are finally able to settle down, they have to learn how to be together day in and day out, with the added pressure of parenthood.
In addition, Harry and Evelyn are very different people. Evelyn is strong, proud, determined, and can come across as cold compared to Harry’s warmth and gentleness. He bends over backwards to ensure things go smoothly for Evelyn; so that nothing upsets her. He is sometimes successful, but many times he is not. Their differences might have initially attracted them to each other, but they certainly cause tension and friction down the road.
This was Evelyn: strong, hungry, wilful, beautiful, sometimes kind, sometimes harsh: completely extraordinary. The woman he had met on the steps thirty-five years ago had changed only in degree. He had chosen her and continued to do so. What love was had changed to the point that he no longer understood it, though he knew its scale and depths, and knew that it was most of who he was.
One thing Harry sacrifices, for a life with Evelyn that includes financial security, is his love of reading and writing. He reads when he can, and writes very little. But his love of poetry and words surface in the story from time to time, adding another layer of interest for book lovers. Evelyn, as well, reflects on a few of the novels she’s read over the years.
Harry half hated and half loved words, held them in a kind of squeamish fascination because of their very slipperiness, because they could take you anywhere at all, including somewhere you did not wish to go…
Modern novels, in general, she felt, were perhaps better avoided. You never knew what was going to jump out of them.
Later in life, Evelyn and Harry can be downright hostile towards each other. It’s painful to see Evelyn’s criticism and even disgust being targeted at Harry. Harry annoys the hell out of her with his morbid silences. But at least he’s silent.
She was sick and tired of the whole damned razor thing and of Harry and of her daughters — who argued with her, were too sentimental, too intellectual, and far too young to understand.
The reader knows that the love is still there, underneath the pile-up of arguments and incidents over the years. But Harry and Evelyn don’t know for sure. They can only see what’s in front of them – shortened fuses and worn-out bodies. Is there any love left there? How to find it under all the stubborn pride and resentment, under the sore hips and the incontinence? It seems to be easier to complain about the bad than to remember the good.
This journey that they go on is accompanied by the reader. We know their backgrounds, see where they’re coming from, yet still struggle to understand them. We approve and disapprove, but remain sympathetic because we know them, and we know that they are both trying. Trying to keep a marriage going while also bringing up three children, working, mourning lost time and unfulfilled passions. And this, for seventy years.
They had their whole lives ahead of them, and before they knew it they were at the end.
Kathy Page writes with compassion for her characters. At times, it’s tempting to take sides, or to become infuriated with one (or both) of them. But as Kirkus writes in their review: Kathy Page “remains devoted to both and forgiving to the end“.
Intense emotion… may seem like madness to those who do not share it.
Dear Evelyn is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
Dear Evelyn is a story made even more meaningful by the fact that Kathy Page uses excerpts from her father’s own letters to her mother during the war (from The Star):
“When Kathy Page’s parents were in their 90s, she read love letters that her father had written to her mother during the Second World War. These letters sparked a curiosity in the Giller-nominated British author, who’s made her home on Salt Spring Island, B.C. since 2001. How does a youthful romance between two very different people evolve over decades of marriage? Page’s answer to that question is Dear Evelyn, an ambitious, and highly literary, historical fiction outing.”
“… it seems to me that we sometimes forget that even difficult, seemingly dysfunctional relationships may be precious and sustaining…” — Kathy Page
Kirkus Review: “A searching, and touching, depiction of the places where married lives merge and the places where they never do.”
Thanks to Biblioasis for sending me a copy of this book!