This was a comforting novel wherein a search for the provenance of a wooden duck is essentially a metaphor for a search for the meaning of life – particularly one lived by a single woman over 40. The opening chapter describes how Laurie would escape her home – loving, but full of the noise of her four brothers (two older, two younger) – and remove herself to the comfort of her Great Aunt Dot’s home. Dot would make space for Laurie, allowing her peace to read her books, maybe watch a little television together, enjoy some snacks, and create an oasis made up of single women. Dot was single her entire life, but never alone – she was almost famous in their small Maine town for her love affairs. Laurie idolized her, and so when she passes she feels a great deal of responsibility to be the one to personally help clean her home, so full of memorabilia from her many travels. As an adult (one who will turn – gasp! – 40 very soon) she has moved across the country to Seattle. Recently, Laurie called off her wedding, and while she knows that she wasn’t a good fit for her fiancé, she also wonders if maybe she just isn’t a good fit for the institution of marriage, full stop. Combing through Dot’s belongings, she is both dealing with her own grief and a sort of existential crisis – if life with a partner feels too hard, is it any easier to endure a life without a partner?
Among Dot’s belongings, Laurie discovers a wooden duck, and she becomes fixated on understanding where this duck comes from. It was rather hidden, which Laurie intuits is unusual for Dot. Laurie wants to know about the duck to both satisfy her own curiosity (piqued when she learns from a local antique dealer that the duck may actually be quite valuable and her aunt may have been having an affair with the married suspected creator) and because she wants to underscore Dot’s value, even though she didn’t have children of her own. Laurie also wants to to one day be an old woman with no children, and she doesn’t want that to mean that she doesn’t have any meaningful relationships or people who will care for you, the way our society assumes children will care for their parents.
As Laurie spends time in Maine cleaning out her aunt’s home she also spends time with her childhood best friend, June, who is a married mother with two children, and her former high school boyfriend Nick, the local librarian and star citizen of their small town. Nick is recently divorced, no children, and their time together quickly becomes complicated. There’s a section in the middle that leads to a rather predictable caper involving the duck that is nonetheless charming, and of course the whole book is essentially a rom-com that only subverts some of the expectations for such a book (the ending is, of course, a happy one).
One small quibble: in at least two places, the editor attributed dialogue to the wrong character, which was a bit distracting (it’s clearly an editing error, but I’m surprised a book this popular would have TWO such errors!). Although this genre isn’t my favorite (I think I’m just partial to books that make me weep at some point), the writing is great and I’m so happy to see more books about women over 40, living so many different types of lives.