Susan Minot: Evening (1998)

Evening

With two novels and one short story collection published to overwhelming critical acclaim, Susan Minot has emerged as one of the most gifted writers in America, praised for her ability to strike at powerful emotional truths in language that is sensual and commanding, mesmerizing in its vitality and intelligence. Now, with Evening, she gives us her most ambitious novel, a work of surpassing beauty. During a summer weekend on the coast of Maine, at the wedding of her best friend, Ann Grant fell in love. She was twenty-five. Forty years later–after three marriages and five children–Ann Lord finds herself in the dim claustrophobia of illness, careening between lucidity and delirium and only vaguely conscious of the friends and family parading by her bedside, when the memory of that weekend returns to her with the clarity and intensity of a fever-dream. 

It’s not easy to capture the beauty of Susan Minot’s gorgeous and ambitious novel Evening. If Virginia Woolf or Proust had written page-turners, that’s what it could look like.

In beautiful prose which explores how memory and consciousness work Evening captures the story of Ann Grant’s life. It is 1994 and Ann is terminally ill; she’s lying in her bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. Scent transports her back in time. The morphine induces hallucinations, which are rendered in brilliant stream of consciousness paragraphs. These chapters and paragraphs, are very short, fragments only; the main story however simply moves back and forth between 1994 and 1954, the summer in which she met Harris Arden.

She smelled the cushion and smelled the balsam and what happened to her then was a kind of wild tumult. The air seemed to fracture into screens which all fell crashing in on one another in a sort of timed ballet with spears of light shooting through and something erupted in her chest with a gush and in her mind’s eye she saw her hands forty years younger and heard the clink of rocks on a beach and the sound of a motorboat and rising behind that came a black night and a band playing in the trees and the smell of water in the pipes of a summer cottage and she raised her hand to keep the cushion there and breathed in and heard an old suitcase snap open.

While Ann is remembering four days in 1954, when she met Harris, her grown-up children, her friends and nurses flutter like moths in the periphery of her bed. Ann is given morphine and more often than not, she’s not lucid but hallucinating. One moment she remembers something that happened in 1954 and the next moment a noise in her bedroom changes everything, makes her imagine something; another moment later, she’s back with her visitors.

Her children hear her talk to an invisible stranger, Harris, but when they ask her about him, Ann denies knowing a person with that name.

The story is divided into several recurring elements. There is the story of the four days in summer 1954, the stream of consciousness elements in which Ann sees her whole life pass, the passages in which we hear her children talk, and very short passages in which Ann seems to be talking to Harris who has come to visit her. His visits take place in her imagination but for her this seems more real than anything else.

Evening questions what is left of a life when it comes to its end. Memories, dreams, illusions, are all the same, when you look back. Ann has been married three times. Some marriages were good, others were bad, but now that she is dying, Harris, the unlived possibility, is the strongest memory she has.

Evening explores the way memory works

First she was Ann Grant, then Phil Katz’s wife then Mrs Ted Stackpole then Ann Lord. Bits of things swam up to her, but what made them come. Why for instance did she remember the terrace at Versailles where she’d visited only once, or a pair of green and checkered gloves,  photograph of city trees in the rain?It only demonstrated to her all she would forget. And if she did not remember these things who would? After she was gone there would be no one who knew the whole of her life. She did not even know the whole of it.

Although the narrative is fragmented and modernist in places, the book has the qualities of a page-turner. At the beginning we only know that Ann Grant met Harris in 1954 and that they both fell in love. It will take the whole book to reveal what has happened and why, after all these years, she still remembers him as if it had been yesterday but never told anybody about him.

Underlying this remembrance of things past, lies a very crucial topic: pain medication in palliative care. It’s briefly mentioned in the book that Ann Lord decided to be medicated although she knew she would probably spend her final weeks, days and hours not being lucid. Some cancer patients prefer lucidity and live their final moments with as much pain as they can possibly endure. Not Ann.

It’s a beautiful book and strangely uplifting. Possibly because it testifies how intense an interior life can be and that nothing is really lost. Everything we’ve ever experienced, imagined or dreamed is still somewhere. In its best moments Evening reminded me of Virgina Woolf’s The Voyage Out, in which we often see people or houses from outside. They are motionless or sleeping, but we catch a glimpse of their inner lives, which are rich and deep and passionate.

Evening has been made into a movie with Claire Danes, Vanessa Redgrave, Glen Close, Toni Colette, Natasha Richardson and Meryl Streep. It doesn’t capture what made the book so wonderful but it’s still a beautiful movie.

30 thoughts on “Susan Minot: Evening (1998)

  1. What a lovely review! I’ve heard Susan Minot’s name before without really knowing what sort of book she wrote. Now that I do, I’m most intrigued to read her. She sounds right up my street.

    • Thanks, Litlove. I’m very sure that you’d like her and would love to hear your thoughts.
      I thought it was refreshing to read a book like this, with so many different styles and still so moving, with a captivating story.

  2. I read Minot’s Monkeys years ago and thought it was good. Didn’t realize the movie Evening was based on her book. The movie could have been better for sure–I think Claire Danes, a wonderful actress, was woefully miscast.

    • I liked the movie but it doesn’t compare to the book.
      I did like her but I didn’t think she and Vanessa Redgrave had a lot in common.
      I found the idea of her being a singer not believable and it’s not in the book.

  3. It is indeed a beautiful book, and I agree,strangely uplifting. One would think not, perhaps, just on hearing the premise. But the writing is so extraordinary I feel like rereading it after reading your wonderful review.

  4. Great commentary Caroline.

    Very insightful observations about ones inner life and its intensity. There are indeed some periods that are likely to come back t the end or at least at times of great crisis.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      I thought it was entirely fascinating how she described the way memory works and how someone who’s seemingly not even “here” still has a rich experiences.
      I can really recommend this.

    • The illness is hardly mentioned. I don’t think you’d mind it.
      I really liked the movie. The funny thing is that Meryl Streep’s and Vanessa Redrgrave’s daughters both are in the film too.
      I don’t think I’ve ever seen Meryl Streeps daughter before.

  5. I have this slim volume on my bookshelf. I opened the cover a few years ago, but had to put it down because I got caught up in another project. From what I remember the prose was lovely and Ann’s interior monologue beautifully thought provoking. Minot is a masterful writer. Thank you for reminding me to dust this book and give it another go.

    • I kept it for a while, until it was the right moment. I think it’s really lovely.
      I hope you like it as much as I did. It’s amazing that it’s not sad or depressing.

  6. Beautiful review, Caroline. I love the title and the cover. I loved this sentence from your review – “Memories, dreams, illusions, are all the same, when you look back.” I also loved this sentence from the excerpt you included – “After she was gone there would be no one who knew the whole of her life. She did not even know the whole of it.” It is interesting to know that the book has been made into a movie. Claire Danes, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenn Close, Toni Collette, Natasha Richardson, Meryl Streep – really? How come I haven’t seen the movie yet? 🙂 It has such an awesome cast.

  7. It sounds lovely even if I usually avoid books about terminal illnesses.

    Didn’t you read another book like this about a woman in hospital and remembering her past? I think Max read it too but I can’t remember the title or the author. A German writer perhaps.

    • It’s an amazing book. I’m preytt sure you’d like it. The illness is not really mentioned a lot.
      I thik the book you mean could be Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Max read it. I’ve got it but didn’t get to it.
      I reviewed the one or the other book on illness though.

  8. Pingback: Best Books 2014 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  9. I thought the film intriguing, love, bad marriages, children , we are still women with feelings, yet we know we are wrong to marry the wrong person and suffer as their is nothing else , only when the children are grown up we realise what we missed out on, but least we tried, why do people keep making the same mistakes,

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