The Whole World Over by Julia Glass
Reading the novel The Whole World Over by Julia Glass is almost second best as a real visit to New York City. A lawyer in the novel looks out of his office window onto Union Square, a view I know well. I felt as if I was there, and this feeling continued throughout this novel as Julia Glass writes about the city where she lived for many years. We meet our heroine Greenie Duquette, a young woman who is a pastry chef and owner of a bakery in Greenwich Village. I was pleased to discover within a few pages that it is the same neigbourhood where the characters from Three Junes, the first novel by Julia Glass, make their home. There is Fenno’s bookshop and Walter who owns a restaurant across the street, as well as Greenie, her husband, Alan, a psychotherapist, and their young son, George. We become intimately involved in the lives of these characters over the course of the novel. This is quite simply a “good read” for some of these indoor winter days. The perfect curl up in front of the fire with a cup of tea and cookies book.
We met Greenie in New York City, but she soon leaves for New Mexico – where it is warm! She has taken on the job of chef for the governor of New Mexico, a man who knows what he wants and usually gets it. Alan is, for now at least, staying in New York City. Greenie and Alan have been married long enough to wonder if they should stay married. If so, they will need to put some effort into the relationship or let it flounder. They will each seriously examine their own commitment to each other, and to their future together as the novel progresses.
Alan, ironically, works mostly with couples who are at exactly this stage of life. It is Alan who, initially, seems to be wondering if the marriage will survive. He is smart enough to understand when his anger or jealousy about the success of Greenie’s career is misplaced. As his clients make up lists of the pros and cons of their relationships Alan wonders what his own list would be like. Alan discovers, quite accidentally, that an earlier –very brief – relationship may have had consequences that will surface now. This is a novel that explores all the ups and downs, and the politics of marriage, acceptance and forgiveness – or not.
Greenie meanwhile loves her new life in New Mexico with her son who is flourishing in his new school. Greenie wants Alan to join her, she wants them to be a family again, but she is coming closer to realizing that this may not happen. To complicate her life further, Greenie renews a friendship with an old boyfriend, Charlie, who is lobbying the governor for water preservation in New Mexico. As Greenie and Charlie spend time together they find their past attraction surfacing.
There is a recurring theme in this novel of questions of parenthood, as many of the characters are examining their desire to have children when they reach their late 30s and early 40s. There are women who thought they had lots of time, expecting that by this age they would be married and have a family. But, somehow the years have passed and it hasn’t happened. There are couples wondering if they are ready for children, often one partner desiring a child and the other ambivalent or opposed.
Along with the desire to bear children is an examination of one’s own childhood, as the adults in the novel think about their relationships with their mothers. Greenie thinks about her own role as a mother, after reading to George The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. She ponders, “What was the important thing about being a mother? “Was it that she loves you no matter what?... No. The important thing about a mother is that she shows you love, not just gives you love but shows it: shows how it’s done.” Reading to George is something that both Greenie and Alan share, and share with the reader the delight of their favourite children’s books.
This is overall a book about relationships, and there are several characters who question the relationship they are currently in. One man observes, “Life is short. But here’s worse news: what remains of it gets shorter all the time.” So, does one stay in a troubled relationship? Perhaps with the person you married in your 20s - or leave, hoping to find a more satisfying life with a new partner found in mid-life? If your spouse admits to infidelity, does that give you the moral justification to do the same? Big questions, big consequences. What I especially liked about this book was that Julia Glass has created characters who are mostly kind to each other, who experience difficult situations, but treat each other with compassion.
I finished reading this novel feeling that I had become so intimately involved in the lives of these characters that I hope I will meet them all again in a future book.