The Solace of Leaving Early
I read The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel because one of my students, Natalie, said it was her favorite book. I got off to a rough start with it, however. I found the title forgettable, and was intensely irritated by the title drop moment, which comes about halfway through. I suspected this novel of being all moments and no plot, of setting me up to sympathize with characters who weren’t going to do anything or go anywhere. I was wrong.
I think the title intentionally fools the reader, at least early on—it seems like it’s about the main character, Langston, who has gone to see the opera La Boheme and said “I’m having a fabulous time” when it’s actually about her brother Taos, whose response is to say “Let’s leave then, shall we?” Langston thinks she “knew exactly what Taos meant; she knew he wasn’t being perverse or clever or idiosyncratic. He was handing her the sweetest possibility this life offers: to leave in the middle, while everyone else stays behind and waits for the heroine to die in the cold.”
What I missed at first is that this is a scene from Langston’s childhood, and she grows past wanting this peculiarly adolescent type of solace without forgetting what it feels like to want it.
Langston has set herself up for adolescent angst. At the beginning of the novel, she has thrown away the chance to defend her dissertation because a former lover showed up for the defense. She has retreated to her parents’ house and spends her time in her bedroom thinking about writing books that will show how superior she is to everyone around her. It’s hard to like her from what she says, but as you look at more of what she does, it’s inevitable.
Amos is a pastor in the town where Langston’s parents live. He isn’t entirely sure of his calling and has had some difficulty getting used to small-town life:
“And who were these people, anyway? All through the late fall and early winter, in order to pick up his mail at the local post office, Amos had to walk past the home of a man named Skeeter, and there was very often a large dead deer hanging from its back feet (or worse, on a hook through the gut) by a series of winches and pulleys on a tree inches from the sidewalk. Amos’s hometown had the only opera house in the whole of Ohio; there were no dead animals in the trees of his youth.”
As you can probably tell, I sympathize with Amos, who circles warily around Langston for most of the novel, feeling awkward and saying the wrong things.
The first time I feel any sympathy for Langston is when she helps her mother prepare for a visit from her grandmother. The grandmother reminds me of my mother, in some ways, as she’s meant to—she’s a woman “overrepresented in literature” who comes in to say “What on earth have you done with mother’s teapot,” so Langston’s mother will say “There it is, where it always is, inside the china cupboard” and the grandmother can make her pronouncement: “Isn’t it a shame it can’t be in a more graceful spot and what a shame people no longer take tea.”
I feel sympathy for Amos all the way through, but the first time he manages to articulate anything of why he does what he does every day, I identify with him so strongly that it seems to me he’s echoing what I said yesterday about necromancy, that there’s inevitably a price in the real world for any attempt to speak to the dead:
“…any time one of the faithful had suggested to Amos that Jesus had appeared, or spoken, or guided, or touched, Amos feigned happiness, but in his mind he asked, ’What is at work in this person? What need, what sort of imagination? How can I help them? The dead return, oh yes they do. The come in dreams, and in fits of memory so potent they can double a grown man, but that wasn’t the same thing as an apparition.”
Amos understands need–of course the dead return, although most of us don’t try to transubstantiate them.
That Amos and Langston are ready to act on the beliefs that have brought them together is apparent when she decides not to wear her grandmother’s beautiful wedding gown and let her mother plan the wedding. She begins to take an active role in her own life, leaving hurtful things unsaid, and he begins to be able to say the right things, starting with “I will.”
The novel has a happy ending—it strikes me a bit like what would happen if the female narrator of some story by Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor finally met someone else who has read all the same books and wants to help her put the ideas to some use in the world.
And Natalie, the sight of Langston’s wedding gown makes me cry, it’s so perfect.