At our book club meeting last night, we discussed our latest book, The Road Home by Rose Tremain. The facilitator, the person who had suggested the book, was a little late so the gals were pretty open about what they thought. Some read a little into it and decided that was enough and they weren’t wasting any more time. Others couldn’t relate to the main character. Some, like me, hated the first half but were glad they had stuck to it. What surprised me was how much the facilitator had loved it…the whole book. Once she said that, I think there was a short pause before we felt we were able to share our thoughts with her. But we’re not a shy group and soon the conversation was flowing as were our opinions.
This got me to thinking about why book clubs sometimes have the more challenging reads and whether I would recommend this book. I guess the less loved books do provide a better discussion. About whether I'd recommend it, well, I think that depends on your perspective.
Most of the people I know, including myself, would fit into some part of the middle class sector; some higher, some lower but still in that general range. While the economy has affected most of us in varying ways, we are all still in the middle. We live in our relatively safe neighborhoods; we go out to dinner, take a vacation here and there and enjoy what life has to offer. And we help each other out as needed. You watch my house when I’m gone, I watch your kids when you need a break. It is all very normal and comforting because we know we aren’t alone.
Yet there are fringes of society that are all around us. I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that not everyone lives this middle class life. This book focuses on those people, the ones who don’t quite fit in or the ones who relish living outside the bell curve.
The main character, Lev, is an immigrant from an unnamed eastern bloc country. His factory has shut down, his wife has died and he travels to London to find a way to provide for his daughter and mother. His really struggles once he arrives. It is only because of a gal he met on the bus to London that he finds a job and a place to live. Many of the people he finds himself around are also somewhat fringe. They are either immigrants like him, who haven’t quite made it, or they are the more extreme artists/writers who are more about shock than about creating something of beauty. Add to this that Lev has been drilled all his life to stop dreaming and just do. He’s not used to learning how to make good decisions and this creates a lot of extra trouble. If you stopped after the first half of the book, that’s all you’d see. Yet the road is still there and Lev somehow learns from what’s around him and follows his path to his dream.
What I think was really good was how the characters were written. These aren’t comfortable people and the life some of them live is foreign to a lot of us. Though, how many among us haven’t been new or struggling with life at some point.
When I briefly lived in a small Ohio city, I felt out of my element. The companies which would have hired someone with my background had closed or downsized. I knew I’d eventually get something but in the meantime, I needed to live. I didn’t have a community like I do now. So, I did whatever I could to find my way. I had two low paying jobs and between them, worked 6 days a week, twice on Saturday and had Sundays off. It didn’t kill me but it wasn’t pleasant.
I managed to make it through that period and return to the Northwest. I did, however, meet a number of people who were living a little closer to the fringe than was comfortable for me. Some had very different ethics but I understood that what they did was what they needed to do to survive. I wouldn’t have chosen the same path but I accepted that this was their way. This book reminds me of that time and those people. That’s probably why the first half was so challenging to me. It brought me back to a time I’d rather not remember. Like Lev, hopefully I have learned something and as I continue down my path, I will also find the way to fulfill my dreams.