My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around (2016) by Ann Garvin (who lives in Stoughton, Wisconsin) carries the reader into the daily life of Tig (short for Tiger Lily) Monahan, a therapist who is attempting to understand why her boyfriend Pete (short, I am sure, for Peter Pan) left her all alone in Wisconsin and flew to Hawaii (an allusion to the island of Neverland) just before Tig’s older sister, Wendy, decided to abandon her newborn baby with Tig (another indirect reference to Peter Pan, who was also abandoned as a babe).
The allusions to Peter Pan from Peter and Wendy (1911) by J.M. Barrie are ever self-evident and often distracting, pulling the reader out of the fictive dream of the narrative (it cannot be mere coincidence that all these “human beings” are named from the Peter Pan stories).
Even the name Alec, who is J.M. Barrie’s older brother, is remembered in Ann’s book as Tig’s second love interest by the story’s end. Tig’s father, Dan, refers indirectly to both Daniel, Wendy Darling’s son, and author Dr. Dan Kiley, who made famous a syndrome in his 1983 book: The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men who have never grown up.
Although the allusions overwhelm this cozy afternoon read mostly meant for mothers and female readers in general, the book does hold an appeal for the more sensitive of male readers who like to search for clues which lead to a deeper meaning in a story.
Added to Tig’s endless sky of problems, she has lost her job and attempts to console her elderly mother, Hallie, who has dementia and has been thrust into a care center called Thor Jenson’s Hope House to live out her final days lost somewhere in the broken pieces of the past and the present.
The mother, however, seems to be more sane and ever present than Tig would like to admit. Look at the following conversation between mother and daughter:
“I want.” Says the mother, Hallie.
“I know, you’ve always loved pie.” Says the daughter, Tig.
“Always, you’ve always loved pie.”
“You can always have pie, Mom.”
Now remove the daughter’s dialogue and see what the mother is attempting to tell her daughter who is failing at true empathic listening:
“I want [to go home]. When… can I… go home?”
The relationship is classic occidental elderly care giving among the children and their parents (note, oriental care giving for the elderly usually consists of the parents residing with their children until death).
The conversation continues even after Tig has failed to understand her mother’s true desire.
Tig says, “You are home, Mom.”
“Her mother, entirely disgusted, came out with the very clear, ‘You eat it,’ shoving the wheeled hospital table away with the half-eaten slice of pie. Tig put her fork down and swallowed the mouthful of overly sugary pie filling that left a slick residue on her tongue. When the nursing assistant came in to help her mother to the bathroom, Tig said, in almost as wretched a whisper as her mother, ‘I want to go home.’ And she did” (p 42).
One can forgive the antecedent (“nursing assistant”) not matching its following pro-form (“her” mother), which could add confusion to the most careful of readers, but one cannot forgive Tig’s infantile ego which withholds from her mother the very thing Tig is able to give to herself: the chance to go home (which is a trait shared more with Wendy Darling than Tiger Lily in the Peter Pan stories). The story is filled with such infantile egos, unraveling and uncertain.
But there is more to Tig’s journey, like a bit of humor along the way, as she sorts out the mess that is her diurnal life by book’s end.
Finding her path as a radio therapist helping callers figure out what is “fair,” Tig comes across some amusing characters and perversions like the following:
“Glancing at Macie, she widened her eyes. Macie nodded, gestured for her to wait for it.
“‘Sleep is good. Anyways, I forgot to take it the other night, y’know, cause it’s new n’ all, and I woke up in the middle of the night to my husband, y’know, having, um…sex with me. Like, he thought I was asleep.’
“Tig jerked her head back to Macie, who nodded feverishly.
“The caller continued, ‘So, what I want to know is… is that wrong?’” (p 96).
There is also the mystery of Hallie and her lover who gave her a bracelet with the inscription: “If I could tell you”:
“Tig brushed a lock of hair off her forehead, and the silver bracelet glittered and slid down her wrist. Dr. Jenson gestured at it and said, ‘That’s a pretty bracelet.’
“She smiled and lifted her wrist. ‘Just another mystery of my mother’s. I found it in her stuff. It’s engraved.’ She tilted the silver tile. ‘I don’t know where it came from. I never saw it before.’
“‘If I could tell you,’ he read. ‘If I remember right, that’s the beginning of a poem of some sort.’ He shifted his weight and looked away” (p 125).
Garvin’s beauty and control of language, however, delight the reader far more often than the amusing side characters and the mystery which tug the story gently forward. Garvin captures humanity at its most raw and most vulnerable moments which keep the reader connected to the protagonist as one might be connected to a sister or a brother.
Here (Garvin at her strongest), Tig holds her sister’s daughter, Clementine, and asks one of the most beautiful questions a woman could ask of herself:
“Clementine gurgled and sucked her fist. Her clear-eyed gaze made Tig’s throat ache and she swallowed, trying to hold back tears. ‘Your mommy is coming back, sweetie. Don’t you worry about that. Your mommy will be back. And when she comes, we’re going to punch her hard. Yes, we are.’
“A nursing assistant passing by the room stuck her head inside.
“‘She looks just like you,’ she said and smiled warmly.
“Tig tried a smile, but her lips trembled and she returned her gaze to Clementine. She traced her finger from Clementine’s forehead to the tip of her nose, finishing at her tiny, tented lip. ‘The big question in my mind is not if your mom is coming back. It’s if Pete is, and if I’ll get a chance at having someone like you’” (p 170).
At only 287 pages I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around can be read in an afternoon sitting or two over coffee or hot tea.
With such fine and exquisite writing, Ann Garvin cares deeply about each individual character that she spins a fairytale not out of magic but out of hope and despair, out of the things readers know to be true to life, true to the heart, and for that any reader can give thanks to a story told well and to a writer bold enough to tell it.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers