I’ll start with a confession (these reviews are getting more and more personal, aren’t they?): age gap romances make me uncomfortable. I’m not judging, or, rather, if I’m judging anyone, it’s myself. I have trouble understanding them. It’s all in my head, I know. For the physical part, I can see loving an older or younger body, but even writing that makes me cringe. And I struggle with imagining two people with a substantial age difference holding each other’s interest long enough for a relationship to grow. Especially nowadays, with the world changing so fast. Once again, I’m not saying it can’t be, I’m saying it’s difficult for me to imagine. When I read, if the characters are well-written, I become them. I feel what they feel. I hurt when they hurt. I’m happy when they are. Characters in age gap romances unsettle me. I feel things I’m not sure I understand. It’s good for me, I guess. It takes me out of my comfort zone. And the thing is, it doesn’t really matter whether I understand or not, does it?
Invisible, as Music both is and is not an age gap romance. As I’m getting used to with Caren J. Werlinger’s books, it‘s different, unexpected. “Most of my books aren’t romances in the accepted sense, but they’re all love stories”, she writes in the acknowledgments page of this book.
Henrietta Cochran contracted polio when she was 15, in 1945. Almost forty years later, she still lives in the house her parents built around her needs in Bluemont, NY, needing live-in companions ever since her parents’ death. She has never allowed herself to want or need anything other than being alive. She’s involuntarily closed herself off, protecting herself from the outside world. She’s convinced no one is interested in her and others only talk about her disability, her braces and her crutches. Her life is dull and colourless, her only respite her art. Her so-called friends are the women she plays bridge with at the country club. The only person she’s vaguely close to is Bonnie, the woman who comes and clean her house, and cook for her on a weekly basis. Her companions are employees, never more.
Until she meets Ryn. At twenty-three, Meryn Fleming is a new History teacher at the local Catholic college. Despite her colleagues’ unabashed misogyny, she’s full of energy and joie de vivre. Henrietta’s coldness doesn’t fool her, nor does it scare her, and she deliberately ignores the walls she’s built around herself, bringing warmth and new friends (including young and wise nuns) into Henrietta’s life.
Invisible, as Music is a wonderful and unusual love story, and an awakening of sorts, to love and, beyond, to the world. For Ryn and Henrietta to allow their love to exist, they have to overcome more than a significant age difference and Henrietta’s health issues. The main part of the story takes place in 1983-1984. At first, the fact that the setting was the middle of the Reagan era didn’t seem to matter that much, except to establish a specific atmosphere. Then, as the 1984 presidential election came closer, the political aspect – and with it Meryn’s involvement and consequently Henrietta’s – became more and more significant. I was thirteen in 1984, and I’m French, so I don’t remember much about it, but this election marked the first time a woman was on a major party’s presidential ticket in the U.S. – Geraldine Ferraro, running as Vice President with Walter Mondale as the Democratic candidate for President.
If I had to summarize this book in a few words (or sentences, I’m not good at limiting myself, obviously), I’d say it’s about the definition of love, of what makes a relationship. It’s also about how society evolves, or doesn’t evolve, in regards to women and minorities. It’s about finding your place and acknowledging your worth. About not letting others define who you are. I don’t know if it’s a romance but it’s definitely a love story.
I never know exactly how to write about Caren J. Werlinger’s books. The best I can say about this one is that it’s quietly beautiful. Read it.