Sunday, May 10, 2009

Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

I think I like Larry McMurtry. I've read enough of him now that I feel safe in making that assessment. I like the way he incorporates poignant commentary about life into the fabric of his stories, like:

Rosie tried to smile but wanted to cry. Seeing Emma sitting there, so trusting and goodhearted, such a happy-looking young woman, filled her with memory suddenly, until she felt too full. She had come to the Greenway house two months before Emma was born, and it was all so strange, the way life went on and seemed the same even thought it was always changing. It never quite slowed down so you could catch it, except by thinking back, and it left some people more important than others as it changed.


Aurora put her hand on Vernon's arm. Life was such a mystery, and such a drama. She had just seen two grown women moved to tears by the sight of the pale bandaged hulk of Royce Dunlup. Few bodies could have contained less of human grace than Royce's, it seemed to her, and she could find nothing at all to say about his spirit, since in her presence he had never shown any. Royce was as near to being a human zero as she had encountered, and yet her own Rosie, a woman of morality and good sense, was ruining several Kleenex over him as she and Vernon watched.

"I better tell her he can have his job back," Vernon said.

"Oh, be still," Aurora said. "You can't cure all the ills of humankind with your jobs, you know. You'd do better to cure a few of your own and let the rest of us flounder."

This is a book that is really two books, and they are two very different ones. The first book is called "Emma's Mother" and is 363 pages long. It takes place in 1962 and Aurora is the protagonist. The second book is called "Mrs. Greenway's Daughter" and is only 53 pages long. It takes place between 1971 and 1976 and Emma is the protagonist. Book I is about Aurora and her less-than-serious search for a second variety from among a variety of doting suitors. Book II is about the mistakes she has made in her life and the way her existence narrows through a battle with cancer. Book I has a lot of dialogue and day by day descriptions of activity important and frivolous. Book II is more retrospective, meaningful scenes played out in between stretches of narrative summary. Book I makes you laugh. Book II makes you cry.

You've probably guessed that I liked Book II better than Book I. The highlight of Book I (for me) was Chapter XIII, which takes a departure from Aurora to tell the story of Royce Dunlup and his dim-witted actions when he discovers that his wife (whom he has left to shack up with another woman) is out on a date with two other men. The chapter reminds me of a lot of other McMurtry that I've read and I've liked—with well-drawn characters acting in ways you wouldn't but in ways that make total sense for them. The charcaters are by-and-large dumb, and McMurtry is at times clearly writing for comedic effect, but the characters are real and true to themselves in a way that's refreshing.

The title of the book is taken from a paragraph late in Book II, when Emma and her husband Flap, knowing that Emma is going to die, argue about who is going to raise their three children. They've been estranged for some time, both having affairs with other people.

They looked at one another, trying to know what to do. Flap's cheeks had thinned, but he still had something of his old look, part arrogant, part self-deprecating—though the arrogance had worn thin after sixteen years. Somehow that look had won her, though she couldn't remember, looking at him, what the terms of endearment had been, or how they had been lost for so long. He was a thoughtful but no longer an energetic man, and he had never been really hopeful.

This is a good description of many of the relationships in the book. These characters have ties that bind them together, even if they have forgotten long ago what those ties are.

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