When Sarah Lucas’ beloved husband, Charles, dies after an accident in the woods near their home in rural Vermont, the 75-year-old woman’s life is turned completely inside out.
In “Every Last Cuckoo,” her first novel for Algonquin Books, author Kate Maloy tells Sarah’s story. It’s a brilliant, well-written novel, and I was sad when I turned the last page. Sarah is the kind of woman I want to be.
In an e-mail interview, Maloy answered questions about Sarah, Charles and the other colorful characters in the book.
But the opening, where Sarah, the main character, is ill, comes straight out of a fever dream I had soon after moving to Vermont.
When I was sick, I experienced some of the same disorientation that Sarah does and saw some of the scenes she sees. I wondered how the experience of illness might change with age, and that was enough to get things started.
NT: Is the character of Sarah Lucas based on someone you know? If not, how did you find her/she find you?
KM: Sarah is very much like an aunt of mine, not in the details of her life or family but in her spirit and energy.
When my uncle died, my aunt was determined to celebrate their long and happy marriage rather than to sink into her loss and grief. She mourned him, as Sarah mourns Charles, but she did that in part by continuing to do the things they had done together, including travel. Sarah, too, turns her grief to action, at least after an initial period of . . . hibernation, almost.
Those parts about their life together proceed in simple past tense, but the parts that describe the very last days of that past are told in present tense because I wanted readers to be right inside Sarah's mind and body as she searches the woods for her husband, and finds him, and gets him to the hospital, and so on.
Present tense is really good for that sense of urgency, and it's also a way of catching Sarah's past up with her present, right as the present changes completely, right when she must face her grief and all the questions about her future now that she is alone.
KM: I'm not a grandmother, but many of my friends are, and I'm pretty sure the pattern you mention holds true in most cases.
I don't really think it's a do-over so much as simple delight in children one isn't responsible for raising. It takes a lot of the pressure off.
I'd also imagine that grandparenthood is a kind of affirmation. If your kids turn out to be good parents, with wonderful children of their own, it's kind of a star on your own forehead. It really must be so satisfying to see the generations come along after you.
Sarah at one point in the novel realizes that she has known three generations before her and two after, and there she is, in the middle of the multitudes, knowing she might live to see her great-grandchildren come along. It's rather a dizzying feeling for her.
Mordechai does not replace Charles. No one could even come close. But he happens to be full of things that Sarah needs to know. He holds up a mirror to her face.
That doesn't for a second diminish her love for him, or how much she misses him. Yet she is still glad for her own growth. She doesn't have to lose her love or deny her grief to gain her new courage.
As a Quaker, Tess is committed to pacifism, which is one of that faith's founding tenets. Questions about war and other forms of human violence enter into the story fairly often.
In fact, before the story even opens, Tess has suffered a loss that makes her rethink her pacifism, and this part of the story interweaves with other characters and events – right up to that dangerous moment that Sarah faces.
In fact, Cromwell would be so perfect I can't really imagine anyone else in that role. I can see Jane Alexander as Sarah, very clearly, but again she would have to be made up to look 75.
Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Ellen Burstyn – they all have several of Sarah's qualities, so they would be great.
Too bad Jessica Tandy is no longer with us. I think that's enough fantasizing for now. I'll leave the casting of the other characters to Hollywood.
NT: The book has garnered a lot of praise. How does that make you feel?
KM: Flabbergasted. Delighted. Giddy on occasion. This book was turned down more than 20 times before Algonquin made an offer. And it was worth the wait, because working with Algonquin has been marvelous every step of the way. I now count myself lucky for those turn-downs.
There are so few elderly women protagonists in fiction, and that reflects unfortunate cultural attitudes. I want Sarah to show readers that aging does not turn a person into someone altogether different – someone weaker, needier, duller, resigned.
Rather, it can concentrate her, make her more her true self, as long as she is determined to defy the prevailing biases.
Right now I am working on a new novel, set in 2008-2009. It's about a young man on a cross-country journey, and all I will say for the moment is that he will meet both Sarah and Mordechai in his travels.
For more information about Kate Maloy, see www.katemaloy.com or http://www.workman.com/algonquin/
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