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This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!
by Jonathan Evison
(Algonquin Books)

How often do you ask yourself, “How did I get here”? The question seems to come with long segments of contemplation, which almost always leads back to a choice—or a series of choices. These decisions, no matter how great or small they might have seemed, send us on life’s journey. In his latest novel, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, Jonathan Evison shows how defining our choices can be. 

Harriet Chance, Evison’s heroine, is a common seventy-eight-year-old woman living in Washington when we meet her. She has occasional visitors. She buys her own groceries. She pays bill. You know, she gets by, even if she isn’t necessarily living. She’s relatable. 

Her children, Caroline and Skip, show up on occasion, but they aren’t too involved in Harriet’s life. Bernard, her husband, is recently dead from a bout with dementia. Things chance when Harriet gets a surprising phone call. It turns out that Bernard won an Alaskan cruise, and it’s now his wife’s if she wants it. 

Harriet, being the unexcitable woman that she is, has no reason to want to take the trip. Her life is fine as it is, so why disturb it? Bernard appears—yes, the dead one, and his ghost encourages Harriet Chance to take a chance. He says to her, “I just think you oughta get out and live a little, Harriet. Be adventurous.” Her reply is an expected, “Why should I start now?” 

It’s no surprise that Harriet succumbs to the ghost’s pressure. The novel’s cover, with its rollicking waves and ship, are spoiler enough. 

Once on the ship, Harriet has unordinary experiences. She meets a man named Kurt who is so wild and so unlike Harriet that the pairing creates several genuinely fun moments. It’s the definite trip of a lifetime for Harriet Chance. 

Much of Evison’s novel is about how Harriet’s choices, or lack thereof, have impacted her life. The presence of Bernard’s ghost serves to amplify how her life could’ve been different if she would’ve taken her own reigns and made her own choices. Evison writes, “Of course, Bernard’s still alive in her imagination—that’s only natural. Of course, she never heats the house above sixty-four degrees. Force of habit. Five decades of familiarity imprinted on her memory like a phantom limb. And yes, she still talks to him. These one-way conversations at the breakfast nook, or in bed, or while she’s rummaging through the junk drawer in search of a screwdriver have been a small comfort the past nine months.” 

Some readers might find This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! to be a sad story, but it’s really not. It’s actually quite charming. You see, Harriet isn’t upset about what life has given her. We as readers might find parts of it uncomfortable and even disturbing on certain levels. Some characters find Harriet’s situation upsetting. Caroline tells her mother about Bernard, “He was a bully, Mom. Quit saying you failed him. You were his servant, his nurse, you were practically his mother. The only meal Dad could cook was toast.” The truth, though, is that Harriet doesn’t seem to care. She did what she felt she needed to do for Bernard. 

While the bulk of the narrative does occur onboard the cruise ship, Evison takes every other chapter to dig into Harriet’s past. He shows us how her ordinary life, full of safe choices, maybe isn’t all that ordinary at all really. 

Evison does a fine job with navigating the story. The back-and-forth between young Harriet and old Harriet meshes nicely. There are occasions in which the prose reaches too high or the language gets a little too polished, but those complaints are minor. What Evison does so well is how he makes his stories so relatable, and This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is no exception. Harriet could be me or you or somebody we know. 

Jonathan Evison’s This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! shows us that a life is a life, and its success can (and should) be solely based on our own measurement.