Lesley Dormen, 2008, 174 p.
The Best Place to Be is a “novel in stories” and the central character is a middle-aged woman named Grace Hanford. It jumps around from present to past and back again, and during this rather frenetic process manages to illustrate all of Grace’s most important life experiences and memories.
Grace Hanford is a complex character; much more complex than she appears at first. I remember feeling rather disgusted with her self-involvement during the first couple of chapters, but, as time progressed, I began to realize that her paper-thin outer shell of bland superficiality was merely a fragile cover for the thick and nearly impenetrable protective endoskeleton lurking beneath her skin. Grace is damaged and lonely and terrified, and she’s afraid of being hurt even more, so she wears a convincing outer layer that fools everyone (even the reader). Discovering the “real” Grace during the couse of this novel made it an absolute pleasure to read.
While reading the first story, entitled “The Old Economy Husband,” I began to experience a niggle deep in the recesses of my brain that kept telling me that this novel reminded me of something, or someone. As I continued to read further, the niggle became stronger until I finally realized what (or I should say who) this novel reminded me of: Katherine Anne Porter.
I hope I don’t offend Ms. Dormen by comparing her to Katherine Ann Porter. They really aren’t all that much alike regarding writing style, but, in my opinion, they are quite similar in their approach to character development. Katherine Ann Porter was a short story writer too. She wrote one novel, Ship of Fools, which became a best seller and was adapted into a highly acclaimed film starring Vivian Leigh and Jose Ferrer. I’ll delve more into the Ship of Fools comparison in a little while.
Grace kind of reminds me of Granny Weatherall in Ms. Porter’s short-short story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” While Granny is much more cantankeous than Grace, they are similar in many ways. Neither one of them can let go of the past. Granny was abandoned by her fiancee, Grace was abandoned by her father. They both feel like there has always been a fundamental something missing in their lives, even though everything has worked out fine for them. They can never be satisfied because they can never let go of their old hurts. Even though Grace is supposed to have accepted life as it is by the end of the novel, I wonder if she really has. Will she, like Granny, be lying on her deathbed thinking to herself that she can’t possibly forgive and forget? Will she have finally found peace? I have my doubts.
Porter’s Ship of Fools, like The Best Place to Be, is a character-driven novel. It’s about the interactions of a hodgepodge of passengers aboard a ship en-route from Mexico to Germany on the eve of WWII. The German passengers are horrible, as are the Mexican passengers and the American passengers and all the others. Grace is not nearly as bad as these people, but, like the passengers, she is stuck in a stereotype of her own making. Both Porter and Dormen look beneath the surface to find the true source of their characters’ inability to understand themselves and others. It has been years since I’ve read Ship of Fools, but I remember a part where the main female character beats a man on the face with the heel of her shoe. For some reason, I could totally see Grace finally losing her temper and performing a similar violent act. I could even hear the “pock, pock, pock” of a figurative heel striking flesh as Grace was nearly bubbling over with resentment during interactions with other characters in The Best Place to Be, especially with her mother.
I wish The Best Place to Be were a longer novel. It would also be nice if some of the secondary characters were a bit more fleshed-out, like Richard (Grace’s husband). I enjoyed reading about Grace’s complicated relationship with her mother, but was left yearning for more. While I didn’t have trouble with the seesawing of the narrative, I think I would have appreciated the reading experience a bit more if the novel were written in a traditional linear fashion. It would have made Grace’s development as a person a bit easier to comprehend.
The Best Place to Be is definitely worth reading. I like characters with depth, and Grace definitely has depth. There is one thing that puzzles me, though. The back cover says that the novel “is at once funny, moving and deeply provocative.” I found the moving and deeply provocative parts, but failed to find the funny. Where is the funny? I didn’t find the novel to be at all humorous, and that’s unusual for me. Perhaps the funny bits are overshadowed by Grace’s pain and sorrow, or perhaps I was just too dumb to find them.