If you would have asked me, I would have said, “doing okay”. But around the time RBG left the earth my cat’s illness took a grave turn and I watched her struggle to hold on for months. It was then I found I couldn’t read. Well, I could read but nothing caught my attention and if I made it to the end of a book, I wasn’t able to remember the story line or I didn’t understand the point. For every one book I finished, there were five placed in a towering DNF pile. I know now I was mourning large chunks of pre-pandemic life that had eked away, maybe forever. My pandemic mourning manifested in multiple ways. One bundle of distressing symptoms hobbled my ability to finish a book, track a story line, or give one good god-damn about any character.
Those were dark days Scrambler friends.
Here is what got my reading back on track again, A Small Crowd of Strangers by Joanna Rose.
This lovely book is a growing into adulthood story about Pattianne, a sweet part-time librarian. She is a wee hapless, which endeared her to me, but she was motivated enough at times to make bold moves, like pass her name and phone number to a handsome library patron named Michael.
So, it turns out Michael is interested in Pattianne too and he is Catholic; in fact, he is very interested and very Catholic. And Pattianne is simply too carried away to consider the ‘very Catholic’ part and the implications of Michael’s dedication. Even when Michael arranges to introduce his parents to Pattianne for the first time at an Easter mass, warning bells do not sound in her brain.
The author skillfully crafts conversations and situations where Michael and Pattianne speak past one another, their sexual chemistry and youthful enthusiasm clouding their eyes and plugging their ears. I often muttered, “oh no no no” as I read, but Pattianne not only didn’t listen to her friends and family, she didn’t hear me either.
Pattianne and Michael marry and move away from his oppressive Catholic family, but Michael’s family and their religious reach is long. As the newlyweds settle into their life in St. Cloud Minnesota Michael becomes more engrained in his beliefs, taking turns with other men to pray outside of Planned Parenthood while Pattianne secretly picks up birth control at the back door of the same building.
Pattianne’s and Michael’s relationship crumbles slowly but not unexpectedly. There are other ruinous events that take place during the death throes of Pattianne’s marriage too, much of if caused by Pattianne’s mistakes. There is a point in the story where, in order to redeem herself, Pattianne has to take to the road – with a smelly old dog named Bullfrog. (Cue the Cat Steven’ song, On the Road to Find Out). True to her essence Pattianne’s trip feels hapless and more than a little precarious, luckily she makes it to the town she was headed for in British Columbia and there she finds herself amongst a small crowd of strangers. And it is there she finally – slowly, imperfectly, clumsily, beautifully – finds herself.
Joanna Rose is a gifted storyteller and movingly reminds the reader, through Pattianne’s missteps, that the world remains generous and compassionate, even when it feels everything around us is being destroyed.
End note: I can read again, but my complete re-entry is in progress and I am not entirely confident that things are set long term. My fingers are crossed and I carry with me Pattianne’s lessons and the heart of one of the world’s greats: Tenzing the cat.