One of the best things about independent booksellers is their spot-on recommendations, sending a title your way that might have otherwise escaped your eye. One such novel for me was THIS IS YOUR LIFE, HARRIET CHANCE! But let me tell you, after I’d read the first few pages, it was an instant love affair. All you need to enjoy this story is an appreciation for strong female characters and a sense of humor. In fact, I challenge you to find a more endearing, crotchety, undaunted heroine than 78-year-old Harriet Chance, who sets sail on a cruise against her better judgment.
THIS IS YOUR LIFE, HARRIET CHANCE! (based on the 1950s TV show This Is Your Life) is both a rollicking ride through old age and a heartrending tale of a woman who discovers that the family she has devoted her life to is not, in fact, what it seems. You will cheer for Harriet from beginning to end, even as the book’s narrator counsels her, much like the show’s host Ralph Edwards himself: “This is your life, Harriet, what it’s become. But do not lose heart. Things will get better. . . .”
Early on, Harriet discovers that her late husband, Bernard, entered and won an Alaskan cruise for two before his passing. When Harriet’s friend, Mildred, bows out of the trip, Harriet embarks solo on the cruise. That is, if you don’t count Bernard, who keeps popping up in her peripheral vision, insisting he has something important to tell her from “the other side.”
As Harriet navigates the buffet line and the nightclubs on board, she simultaneously charms and alienates everyone she meets. So what if she sometimes slips into conversation with her dead husband? She couldn’t be friendlier to the passengers. And when her daughter surprises Harriet by showing up at port in Juneau, you’ve got to hand it to Harriet for trying to right old wrongs—she spews advice like a slot machine spitting out coins.
The chapters alternate between Harriet’s voyaging adventures and flashbacks to her early days of marriage—Bernard, it seems, was a bit of a buffoon, rarely there for her or the kids. Yet loyal Harriet spends months caring for her ailing husband, even when Bernard no longer recognizes her. We so want Harriet to enjoy herself on the cruise—Lord knows, she’s earned it—so anytime something goes wrong, we worry for her. Conversely, when she walks out of the gift shop in Juneau “$186 lighter,” we applaud her improvidence. Way to go, Harriet! Way to spoil yourself for once!
Harriet’s travels take her from Washington State to Juneau to Ketchikan, but like all good bildungsromans, the journey suggests so much more than sight-seeing opportunities for our feisty heroine. Harriet has viewed not only the Alaskan shoreline but also the crags and valleys of her own messy life, which, in retrospect, seem perhaps not so terrible. As her chronicler advises her, “It’s not every day that there’s order in the universe, Harriet Chance, so enjoy this: Breathe deeply of that salty air, really let it fill your lungs. . . . Live, Harriet, live!” It would seem sound advice for us all, words that even Harriet could agree with.
Just don’t expect her to tell you.