Set in Maine and Boston, Douglas Kennedy’s 11th novel is narrated by Laura, a middle-aged radiographic technician with a husband and two children. Married for 21 years to Dan, who has been laid off from his job for almost two years, she is now the sole breadwinner. Their troubled son Ben is a talented emerging artist and their 17-year-old daughter Sally is doing her best as she deals with the usual challenges facing girls her age. All in all, your average white American middle-class family.
Laura’s job puts her in an unenviable position. Seeing patients at their most vulnerable, her relationship with them is at once intimate – she sees inside them as she scans their bodies for abnormalities – and limited – by legalities and protocol. After many years of experience, she knows if she is looking at a benign growth or Stage 4 cancer but despite a patient’s pleas for a diagnosis, she cannot give one.
This dilemma never used to bother her but something has shifted; she has been crying a lot lately and the professional detachment she is renowned for has been waning:
There was a time when these scan-room confessions – usually blurted out in moments of mortal terror, shadowed by the great fear of the unknown – were all in a day’s work for me.
At their weekly ‘book talk’ meetings, Laura and her best friend Lucy discuss novels ‘which reflect the difficulties inherent in day-to-day life’ and then swap stories about the ‘ongoing weather systems’ in their own lives. Laura has begun to question many things about her life, including her long marriage, which she has come to describe as a ‘continental drift’. Dan’s philosophy of life is, ‘Feet firmly on the ground is the only way to travel’, but Laura feels trapped and is wondering if her future could be different. Self-entrapment is a recurring theme in Kennedy’s novels:
Maine. I’ve lived here all my life. Born here. Raised here. Educated here. Married here. All forty-two years I’ve had to date rooted in this one spot. How did that happen? How did I allow myself to stand so still? And why have so many people I know also talked themselves into limited horizons?
In a moment of happenstance, another recurring theme in Kennedy’s novels, Laura meets insurance salesman Richard Copeland at a weekend work conference in Boston. A random moment such as this can set in train a series of unexpected events which can change the path of a life. This is what happens here as, with an underlying sense of impending doom, events unfold over the five days following the chance meeting.
Believing that ‘there is no such thing as an ordinary person, and every life is, in its own singular way, a novel’, Kennedy says that Five Days was inspired by a haunting image at an airport – seeing an attractive woman in her early 40s standing on her own, crying, and twisting her wedding ring ‘maniacally’. The resulting novel embraces large ideas and themes (many of these appear in his earlier novels) including love, the nature of happiness, routine and freedom, loneliness and connection, grief and regret, hope, choice and the possibility of change.
Reading Five Days was a mixed experience. I had big expectations and, while I enjoyed it, I also had some problems with it. A major one was Laura’s voice, particularly in the latter part of the book. Although he writes convincingly about the anatomy of a failing marriage (he is very familiar with the subject – his own 23-year marriage ended in 2008), in this particular instance, Kennedy writing as a woman just didn’t work for me. I regularly read and enjoy his writerly Facebook postings and it was this voice I kept hearing in Laura. I guess the ultimate test for any writer capturing the experience of the ‘other’ is a sex scene and although these are relatively few and not lengthy, they did make me squirm a bit. Sometimes I wish authors would just hang a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door or ‘gently fade screen’.
The other major problem for me was the dialogue between Laura and Richard, which I found at times to be unrealistic and contrived. Both characters are serious word/book nerds (my favourite kind of people) but I just didn’t find that their conversations rang true:
‘My work forces me to do that all the time – because being a radiographic technologist is all about being able to view the most elemental cellular forces within us with absolute pellucidity.’
Describing his novels as ‘serious and accessible’, Kennedy says his view of the novel is:
‘… very nineteenth century – the fact that fiction should be compulsive, yet also instructive and illuminating when it comes to life’s larger dilemmas. As such I have been told that my novels keep my readers up late into the night, yet also grapple with large philosophical ideas.’
While I enjoy his stories, and this one was no exception, I sometimes found the philosophical lessons heavy-handed in the telling. Delivered with a somewhat preachy quality, they tend to weigh down the narrative, affecting pace and flow.
Despite all these considerations, Five Days will be popular with Kennedy’s fans and will appeal to readers who like a modern American love story with a ‘big narrative sweep’.
© Paula Grunseit 2013
This review was first published by The Newtown Review of Books in April 2013.