When I read this, I felt that little tingle you get, as a reader, when you think you’ve found a perfect match for your reading taste:
“It’s like pulling a thread that unravels and unravels. One loose thread, and you can un-knit an entire sweater. Because everyone is a part of someone else’s life story, once you find the connection.”
Kathleen is actually talking to Natalie about researching family history, the two of them, a 50-something-year-old woman and a teenage girl, standing in the archives.
But I heard it as though it came directly from Meg Mitchell Moore.
I took it as a sign of what drives her to write fiction (partly, at least: I’m sure there’s more to it).
This was true, too, of her first novel, The Arrivals, also rooted in the connections between life stories, although more overtly, in a single family’s members.
So Far Away, in contrast, focuses on a handful of characters who don’t have that kind of connection in their lives.
Kathleen is most obviously a solitary figure; she is a widow and she has lost her daughter.
Readers don’t understand, at first, what that means for her: lost. But Susannah is lost. And readers don’t know whether Kathleen will ever properly explain.
“She liked Neil also because he never asked about Susannah. Neil seemed to accept the hole in her life without feeling the need to stick his finger into it, feeling around for the tender parts, the way most people did.”
Kathleen’s grief is not recent, but it is still fresh. Natalie’s is fresher, still.
Her father has left the family home recently, and although the separation hasn’t been finalized, the ramifications have been extreme. Natalie’s mother has basically checked-out of her own life.
The simplest way to describe it, in Natalie’s point-of-view, is to say her mother is dead.
And that is what she tells Kathleen, who immediately feels that the connection she felt with this girl is intensified by the sense that she knows something of loss.
(And, she does, just not in the way Kathleen thinks.)
“Thing number six that made Natalie sick: the way things could change so quickly, and nobody gave you any warning.” (48)
It might as well be a death, Natalie thinks, but it’s true that there are all kinds of changes with devastating (and sometimes irreversible) ramifications; this theme plays out in a variety of ways for the cast of characters in this novel.
So Far Away reads easily, like an Anne Tyler novel (but with more dialogue and a more scenic style).
The characters dig under the reader’s skin. Their problems are not extraordinary; they are believable and affecting. They are problems that many readers will share, though the intensity and circumstances will vary.
“All around them girls were in danger. And obviously she was ill-equipped to help: look what happened the last time she’d tried. She thought of Susannah in the bath, playing with a yellow ducky, Susannah climbing aboard the school bus, turning to wave, all the hope and optimism in the world on her face. It went so quickly from that to the rest of it, it took your breath away.”
And, yet, it seems there may be more attention-to-detail on the author’s part than the accessible style suggests.
Sometimes a speck of figurative language glimmers in the prose: “She was known for it, and apparently unembarrassed by it. When Elsie ended the silence by tossing back her head and laughing the very furniture seemed to bend forward in relief.” (125)
[This snippet is actually pulled from the diary excerpt in the novel, which appears in the context of Natalie’s search for material in the archives: if you are partial to narratives with overlapping stories like this, So Far Away will definitely appeal.]
And sometime there is a parallel construction which stands out, hinting at more deliberate crafting than one might have guessed.
For instance, both Natalie and Kathleen make a similar observation in dissimilar circumstances, which subtly reminds the reader that there isn’t all that much difference between a 57-year-old’s thoughts and a teenager’s, but the differences are revealing, all the same.
Natalie notes that “…an old home was being torn down entirely to make way for a faux-Federalist mansion so big it strained against the property lines like a fat lady in an old suit.” (132)
Kathleen observes “…the pot roast shoved into an inadequately sized refrigerator like a fat girl into a prom dress.” (257)
Each of the characters draws a comparison to the other’s age group, distancing their own selves from the simile, but simultaneously linking the two characters in their sense of ‘other’ness and feeling like a misfit.
(It’s also revealing that each possesses a certain smugness and self-satisfaction that affords them the security of poking at the “fat lady” and the “fat girl”. This quality is hinted at in Kathleen’s character in other ways as well, and although Natalie’s self-esteem is faltering, she is at the age where making comments like this is often done more out of daring than out of an awareness that it could be hurtful. These are imperfect people, as are we all.)
Such a parallel also exists in the case of Natalie looking at something that is truly upsetting for her: “It was like poking at a wound: it hurt, and yet she couldn’t stop doing it.” (207)
This immediately echoes the earlier passage about Kathleen’s sensitivity to discussion of Suzanne’s having been lost; these details draw the characters together, quietly but determinedly, and draw them towards the reader as well.
Meg Mitchell Moore’s first novel, The Arrivals, was wholeheartedly satisfying, but I enjoyed So Far Away even more; any sweater she knits, I will happily wear.