- - Thursday, August 27, 2015



By Lauren Fox

Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 272 pages

Lauren Fox’s “Days of Awe” begins with a funeral. This always signals a contemplative novel of retrospection as readers are taken back into the life of the deceased, events leading to the death, and the impact on the bereaved — who may, indeed, be deeply involved or implicated in the death, and who certainly live with its effects on their own lives.

In the case of Isobel Moore — usually called Izzy or Iz — the death of her best friend Josie is devastating. Josie died when she was driving on a rain-slick road and her car crashed into a guardrail. Like Izzy, she was in her early 40s and a teacher at a Wisconsin middle school, where they had met and became instant best friends. Why? Because both were smart and sassy, and because of that hard-to-define something that draws people together — even when they are not entirely alike. Izzy is often irreverent but she is responsible, a mother committed to her daughter Hannah and her own mother Helene. Josie is not interested in having children. She is an artist, not very good but full of bright ideas. She loves Izzy; she loves her husband Mark, but she is also self-involved.

And while readers know a lot about Izzy’s background, a bit about her husband Chris’ and another bit about Mark’s, there is nothing much about Josie’s. She is a charismatic will o’ the wisp who attracted Izzy and Mark, loved them for years, but then perceptibly drew away. Death was the ultimate separation, but things were changing even before she ran into that guardrail. As Izzy later reflects, “Some people inch away from you slowly, in barely discernible steps. In the end it almost doesn’t matter. They’re just as gone.”

Izzy is the narrator of “Days of Awe,” and she moves back and forth in time, recalling incidents — such as the time when Josie forgot the emergency medical supplies when they were escorting a school trip — and tracing changes such as the evolution of her marriage and the relationship with her daughter. Izzy can be both mordantly and perkily funny, sharply perceptive, clever and a sensitive observer of both people and locations. From the beginning she grasps her readers and carries them along so that “Days of Awe” has some of the page-turning qualities of a summer read despite being a sad tale of loss and grief: Izzy loses not just Josie, but also Chris.

And we see, too, that Hannah, a charming little girl in many flashbacks, has turned into a pretty obnoxious teenager. Why is this? The simple answer about Hannah is she just hit those hormone-ridden years, but the answer about Chris is more obscure. He suffered with Izzy’s long-term sadness about the four miscarriages that meant they did not have a second child. He grieves for Josie’s death, understands Izzy’s loss is greater, but rather understandably loses patience with her inability to cope. Still. Is this enough to cause the failure of the marriage — a failure that Izzy mourns?

The question remains as the sections of the novel move back and forth in time, and it is never satisfactorily answered. Nor is it entirely clear why Izzy’s grief is so unchanging that she embarks on several unwise confrontations. Her musings over the past — her own personal life as well as the past of the once-happy foursome — imply that answers will be found, but except that she reaches some closure about her failed marriage, this is largely not the case except in the most general sense.

It helps to recall the title of the novel. In the Jewish calendar the Days of Awe are the 10 days leading to and including Yom Kippur. They are days of reflection, repentance and atonement. Izzy’s survey of her life can be seen as fulfilling this phase of Jewish belief. She emerges chastened, wiser perhaps, clear in the new knowledge that “Death smashes a crater into your life, and you’re left alone to sort through the ramble. But here’s something else I figured out in the long months after Josie died: she would always be my wild, grieving, huge-hearted, selfish, confident, insecure, extravagant, beloved best friend.”

As a meditation on the transitions of life, including the changes as we grow up, fall in and out of love, slip into elderliness, as well as the big change of death, “Days of Awe” is both sensitive and sensible. Much of what Izzy has to say is worth listening to, especially as Lauren Fox skillfully uses wit to take the curse off the sad truths of change. She is somewhat less artful in the structure of her novel. The time switches are sometimes a bit bewildering and ultimately don’t serve her purpose well because they break up the narrative without compensating for this with any obvious gain.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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