Ever since I finished Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, I’ve found myself craving nonfiction because I really wanted Remarkable Creatures to be nonfiction instead of historical fiction. It put me in a mood to read a memoir or two, so when I went to the library last, I looked around the biography section for something to catch my eye. I’m not sure what it was exactly about A Year By the Sea that drew me to the cover, except I’m being drawn to these light blue covers prominently featuring a beach. I didn’t know who Joan Anderson is or why I should care about her year by the sea, but by the end, I became very emotionally invested in Anderson’s story.
The thing is, the description of this book would normally make me put it down and keep looking. I often find it hard to understand or sympathize with books about older women who leave their husbands who haven’t cheated on them or really done anything wrong; they are just tired of their life so they pick up and move on instead of trying to work on it and understand why they feel the way they do. Often I feel that the women (and men) portrayed in novels and nonfiction who do that come across as selfish. I think a lot of this prejudice comes from reading Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, a book I despised. Fortunately, Joan Anderson’s A Year By the Sea was not a nonfiction version of Fear of Flying, it was nothing like it. It was incredibly honest and eye-opening about the life of an older woman who has given her entire life to her family, only to find that she needs to spend some time learning about herself.
When her husband receives a job offer across the country, Joan simply says she does not want to move with him. She is surprised at how easy it is to say and how easy it is to sell her house with her husband and move into their Cape Cod cottage by herself in September, when most people are leaving for the winter. Joan spends a year by the sea, just as the title suggests, mostly thinking and rediscovering herself. Most of the time she is completely alone, left to figure everything out, though she does meet some interesting people along the way.
What I was expecting was not necessarily what I got. I saw a lot of myself in Joan and she made me think a lot about the way I see myself. I’m not sure I can articulate what usually bothers me about stories where one person leaves a marriage, but I think it is incredibly difficult for a young person to stand on the other side of making the commitment of marriage with someone to understand what that would be like. What an entire life with someone is like. I think it’s also terrifying to sit and think, they were once like me, in love and eager to begin life together, and now they have ended up like this. Is that my fate, too? I like to think it isn’t, so I don’t necessarily like to read novels and nonfiction that tell me otherwise.
But A Year By the Sea was different. Joan explained her situation and reflected on her life in such a way that it was all very clear. Joan, for all the self-discovering she did throughout the book, seems to understand herself better than most. At some point she meets a woman in her 90s also named Joan who eventually becomes a sort of mentor to the author. I felt much the same way about the Joan who wrote this book. She was talking directly to me, explaining that sometimes you need to spend some time to figure yourself out and the only mistake you can really make is thinking you’re always a complete, finished person. You’re not; we are constantly shifting to understand ourselves better and to make ourselves better people.
This is a book that I can see myself buying and rereading when I need a little reminder to take life slowly and as it comes, to focus on myself once in a while and to not lose sight that I am a constantly changing person and that is okay. When I looked this book up, I learned that there are three follow up books, something I was very excited to see. One chronicles the next year, when Joan and her husband move back in together to work on their marriage. The second turns A Year By the Sea into a self-help kind of book, that I’m not exactly sure I’m interested in reading. But, I’m especially interested in A Walk By the Sea, a book that focuses completely on Joan Erikson, the older woman Joan met on one of her walks through Cape Cod.
Maybe I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, but something about it spoke to me completely. Were there times when Joan was frustrating and even a little selfish? Yes. Were there moments when I didn’t understand her motivations and I sympathized with her husband? Absolutely. But Joan puts everything out there. She is unsure of everything she is doing, but she is prepared to find out if it’s the right thing.
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
I used to feel sad on New Year’s Eve, clinging to the old year, never wanting it to be over. I avoided good-byes for the same reason, clinging to what was, simply because it was known, whereas the future was unknown and therefore to be worried over. How much fear has controlled my life. No longer!
My cheeks sting, and my fingers prickle. I duck into a nearby watering hole and order hot cider, comfortable this day sitting among strangers. I pat my firm thighs and promise to banish further negative thinking. Smug about my New Year’s resolutions, I raise my glass to being big, beautiful, feminine, and forever changing, promising to work with my bones and flesh. After all, bones make new bones if they are exercised, skin sheds itself to make room for fresh flesh, muscles untangle and restore their strength. I truly have rejoined the human race. (91)
I’m learning that what’s important is not so much what I do to make a living as who I become in the process. Simple labor is smoothing my edges, teaching me to crave work not just because it might make me special or wealthy but because the job pleases my spirit, makes me a more pleasant person, and meets my immediate financial needs. (133)
“I shall miss having secrets,” I told Joan recently.
“Ah, but you must always retain some part of yourself which is nobody’s business. The minute you let others in on your secrets, you’ve given away some of your strength.”
Here, where much more is hidden than apparent, I am reminded that a companion to mystery is peace; that knowing less and wondering more offers expectancy. It has become my way to dispense with incessant seeking in favor of stumbling upon answers. In the words of Picasso, “I find, I do not seek.” No longer desperate to know every outcome, these days I tend to wait and see, a far more satisfying way of being that lacks specificity and instead favors experience over analysis. (164)
I am utterly content, tranquil in my aloneness, serene. Joan once told me that the root word in Greek for “alone” means “all one.” That is precisely what I am experiencing, a sense of that sort of wholeness. (169)
I picked this book up at just the right time. I’m looking forward to Joan’s other books.
So go read this!: When you need it. This is another one that I can’t tell you when to read it, maybe you need to just discover it on the shelves for yourself.