This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!: A Novel

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!: A Novel

by Jonathan Evison


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“Evison’s writing crackles on the page.”*

With Bernard, her husband of fifty-five years, now in the grave, seventy-eight-year-old Harriet Chance impulsively sets sail alone on an Alaskan cruise that her late husband had planned. But what Harriet hoped would be a voyage leading to a new lease on life becomes a wildly surprising and revelatory journey into her past.  
Jonathan Evison has crafted a bighearted novel with an endearing heroine at the helm. Part dysfunctional love story, part poignant exploration of mother-daughter relationships, nothing is what it seems in this bittersweet tale, told with humor and humanity.

“An irresistible, inventive novel full of important ideas about how we live our lives as parents, children, partners, and human beings.” —Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins

“Infused with Evison’s characteristic empathy and heart and humor . . . He’s got a talent for character, emotion and pacing.” —Los Angeles Times

“Open-hearted, effervescent.” —The Washington Post

“Wildly entertaining.” —The Seattle Times

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a pleasurable mix of the crazy escapades, changing relationships and thoughtful reflections that make up a life.” —The Toronto Star

“Slowly, and with admirable, dark precision, Evison lays Harriet bare . . . And with Harriet Chance--poor, frustrated, flummoxed Harriet--Evison has found his ideal foil.” —

“It’s hard to imagine the reader who won’t be moved by this lively, lovely work.” —The Denver Post

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616206017
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 319,438
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Evison is the author of four previous novels, including All About LuluWest of HereThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, and This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! He lives with his wife and family in Washington State.

Read an Excerpt

November 4, 1936

Here you come, Harriet Nathan, tiny face pinched, eyes squinting fiercely against the glare of surgical lamps, at a newly renovated Swedish hospital high on Seattle’s First Hill. It’s an unseasonably chilly Wednesday in autumn, and the papers are calling for snow. Roosevelt by a landslide! they proclaim. Workers grumbling in Flint, Michigan! In Spain, a civil war rages.

Meanwhile, out in the corridor, your father paces the floor, shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow. Clutching an unlit Cuban cigar, he checks his wristwatch. He’s got a three-o’clock downtown.

By the end of the week, Harriet, you’ll leave the hospital wrapped in a goose-down swaddler knit by your ailing grandmother. Your father will miss his three-o’clock today. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. They don’t call it labor for nothing. Let’s not forget the grit and determination of your mother. All that panting and pushing, all that clenching and straining, eyes bulging, forehead slick with sweat. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that she won’t begrudge you any of it, though you’ll always be your father’s girl.

Here you come, better late than never: a face presentation. Not the boy your father so desperately wanted, but here you come, anyway, all six pounds three ounces of you. Button nose, conical head, good color. A swirl of dark hair atop your little crown. And a healthy pair of lungs, too.

Listen to you wail as the doctor slaps your fanny: your cries phlegmy and protracted. Hear them? These are virtually the last sounds you will utter until well after your second birthday.

Yes, Harriet, you were an exceptionally quiet child. Too quiet.

Exhibit A: December 31, 1936. For the rest of their lives, your parents will regale you, and anyone who will listen, with a rollicking story about a certain New Year’s Eve party on the north end. The story involves a bassinet into which your father, in a moment of stoned clarity and admirable foresight, fastened you by your ankles and armpits for safety, using his own necktie and a leather belt from the host’s closet. The party is a triumph, as the story goes, with Bacchus leading the charge. The music is brassy, the walls are thrumming. So frenzied the celebration, in fact, that amid their merrymaking, revelers fail to notice the upended bassinet in the corner. That is, until whiz kid Charlie Fitzsimmons, the firm’s youngest partner, lipstick on his collar, ladies’ underpants adorning the crown of his head, nearly trips on you on his way back from the punch bowl.

It will not be the last time Charlie Fitzsimmons takes notice of you.

“Would you look at that glass of milk?” he shouts.

For an instant, the party is struck dumb as everyone turns their attention to the corner. Look at Harriman Nathan’s girl!

“She’ll make a hell of a judge,” observes Charlie.

And of course, hilarity ensues. The story never fails, and you’re the punch line, Harriet.

There you are, for God only knows how long, upside down, your poker face turning from red to blue to purple, your little gray eyes gazing impassively at the world, as your parents ring in a prosperous 1937.

You never made a peep.

This is your life, Harriet. The beginning, anyway.

August 11, 2015

Harriet finds Father Mullinix in his stuffy office behind the chapel, his reading glasses roosting halfway down the bridge of his nose, his laptop propped open in front of him.

He’s on his feet before she can cross the threshold. “Harriet, you’re shivering. Sit.” He lowers her into a straight-backed chair. “My goodness, you’re sopping wet.”

“He’s here, Father,” she says. “I found his slippers this morning next to mine in the breakfast nook.”

Father Mullinix smiles patiently, setting his big hands on the desktop. “We’ve talked about this several times recently, Harriet. There’s but one ghost in the Bible, and we both know who that is.”

“But last week, the WD-40. And now this.”

Drawing a weary breath, Father Mullinix holds it in.

“You don’t understand,” says Harriet. “The WD-40, that was him, telling me to quiet those hinges on the dishwasher. He hated the squeaking.”

Slowly, Father Mullinix releases his breath. Clasping his hands together on the desktop, he proceeds expertly in a measured tone.

“Perhaps it is possible he’s trying to speak to you through God,” he concedes. “But certainly I wouldn’t take the WD-40 as a sign. Perhaps you left it there on the chair, a lapse in memory. It happens to me daily. Yesterday I found these very glasses in the pantry. We’re all so busy in these times, so preoccupied. And you of all people, Harriet, you are so diligent in all things, particularly for someone of your . . . experience.”

“But I know I didn’t leave it there. And the slippers.”

“Well, I’m sure there’s an explanation.”

“I saw him Father, I felt him. Last night, we were at the Continental Buffet. He was eating corned beef.”

“Ah, I see. You’ve had another dream.”

“I wasn’t dreaming. He was an actual presence.”

Father Mullinix smiles sadly, but Harriet can tell his patience is wearing thin. For months, she’s been eating up his time, unloading her grief on him, bludgeoning him with the details of her dream life and, most recently, trying in vain to convince him that Bernard still lingered somehow in the earthly realm. Perhaps she was mistaken in confiding in him this time, though he’d never failed her in the past.

“Do you think I’m, oh, Father . . . you don’t think I’m . . . ?”

“I think, perhaps, you could use some rest, Harriet.”

“But Father, I assure you I’m—”

“Please, let me drive you home, Harriet.”

September 9, 1957

Look at you, Harriet, a grown woman! No longer a glass of milk but a tall drink of water. Okay, not so tall. Maybe a little on the squat side, maybe a little pudgy, to hear your mother tell it. But your hygiene is fastidious, your bouffant is formidable. And you’re still quiet, which makes you popular among lawyers and men alike. But you’ve no time for men. You’re a professional. Marriage is one negotiation that can wait. First, your own apartment. An automobile. A promotion.

The sky is the limit!

Here you are, at Fourth and Union, top floor, just three months removed from your associate’s degree. And not your father’s firm, either. Sure, you had a push, a few advantages in life, but you got here on your own. No, you’ll never be a lawyer, but a crack legal assistant is not out of the question. You love your job. Okay, maybe love is a bit strong. But prepping documents, writing summaries, filing motions, all of it agrees with you. Look at you, downtown girl: chic but pragmatic. Shopping at Frederick & Nelson! Lunching at the Continental Buffet!

Let’s be honest, though. Let’s talk about the problem that has no name. All these months later, they’re still slapping your fanny around the office. Your salary doesn’t stretch that far. The work is exhausting. As both a woman and an assistant, you’re expected to work harder. And for what? A string of pearls? A sleek automobile? A slap on the can from a junior partner? It will be six more years before Friedan exposes the “feminine mystique,” twelve more before Yoko Ono proclaims woman as “the nigger of the world.” But by God, Harriet Nathan, you’re determined to buck your disadvantages. Okay, maybe determined is a bit strong; how about resigned to them? The least you can do is achieve independence. Tackle adulthood on your own terms. Put that associate’s degree to some purpose.

Make a name for yourself, Harriet Nathan.

The truth you’re not telling anyone, especially not your father, is that amid the administrative whirlwind of the office, the hustle and bustle of downtown, the ceaseless tedium of legal research, you yearn for something less exhausting: for stability, predictability, and yes, a Christmas hearth festooned with stockings.

You yearn, too, Harriet, for a man. C’mon, admit it.

So, what is it about this new young building superintendent that catches your attention in the hallway upon your return from lunch, as he explains to your boss, in layman’s terms even you can understand, the difference between AC and DC? Surely, it’s not his stature. He’s two inches shorter than you. And it turns out, he’s not all that young, at thirty-three. There is, however, a squareness to his shoulders, a symmetry to his face, a quiet confidence in his bearing. Not just the firm, but the whole building—all that concrete and steel, all that electricity, all that plumbing—is reliant upon his capability. You’re not alone. The whole office is impressed by his confidence, charmed by his forthrightness. Even the partners, those pompous autocrats, bulging at the waist, those experts who defer to no one, treat this man as an equal.

But here’s the thing: tending an elevator, a fan, a heating duct, in his neatly creased work trousers, penlight clutched between his teeth, as he reaches for his tool belt, exposing the gray Semper Fi tattoo on his inside wrist, he strikes you as more than their equal.

Harriet Nathan, meet Bernard Chance, your valentine for 1957.

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This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A love story, a mother-daughter story, a life story. An unpredictable surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a heartfelt story
Redheaded-Janeite More than 1 year ago
With the character of Harriet Chance, Jonathan Evison has once again done what he does best: create a compelling character whose struggle for redemption is sure to elicit the reader's empathy and love. Harriet does not know she is struggling for redemption, but ultimately that's what this story is about. The journey to find out if she will reach it is compulsively readable. You will laugh at Harriet and you will cry for her. In fact there were passages in this book that were so incredibly sad that I almost didn't want to read them because I only wanted Harriet to be happy. She deserves happiness. And when an author can make you feel that protective of a character, you know they are doing something right. But another thing Evison is excellent at is finding the humor in life. He won't let you dwell on the sadness. He will reveal all facets of humankind with his stories: light and dark, happy and sad, love and betrayal. It's all here in the life of Harriet Chance.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting writing style, engaging. Got a little heavy in the last third of the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a bittersweet story about life, loss, love and accepting the worst and best of life’s journey. It was enchanting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wanted there to be some deep conflict that comes to a resolution. We were taken into the deep and interesting sadness of the characters’ lives, but then nothing really came of it all. Maybe that’s just being true to how things often work in life, but I was left wondering why I just spent my time reading this book. Has potential.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a little of everything life has to offer. Being in my seventies, I found myself relating to Harriet. Feeling her highs and lows throughout the book. Once I started reading it held my attention to the very end.
MorrisMorgan More than 1 year ago
“This is Your Life, Harriet Chance” is unlike any other book I have read. It combines a series of past events presented in the style of the game show “This is Your Life”, the ghost of a recently deceased husband, and a family whose dirty laundry is slowly being hung out for all to see. This is definitely a meandering book and will best be appreciated by those who enjoy simply being along for the ride. It jumps all over between past and present. Even the flashbacks are in no particular order. The nature of Harriet’s past ranges from pure to scandalous, with everything in-between. In short, it’s a life that isn’t sugar-coated when looked back upon. The current family issues that are mixed in do a wonderful job of showing how our past can help shape our futures while not necessarily defining them. I can’t help but wonder what I would see if I looked back on my life in the same manner. Overall, “This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!” is an enjoyable read for someone who enjoys the slice-of-life writing style. This review is based upon a complimentary copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
LaurieJaye More than 1 year ago
I do agree that Evison is a good story teller. But the only reason I stayed with the story - depressing at best with little redeeming qualities - was that I was listening to it in my car. I would not have wasted my time otherwise. "Why do I even care about these people?" I asked myself several times. Harriett represents a generation of dutiful women who were repressed at birth and spend their lives serving others... and not very well apparently in Harriett's case. The revelation she provides to her daughter adds to the story but it seemed rushed compared to the detail of everything that preceded it. She tells her tale, we are told in two dimensional terms that is the reason for her wasted potential and there is little else after that. No last scene with her daughter. Just a jaunt off the ship as if nothing momentous has occurred. And the flash backs to points in Harriet's past was a distraction at times. Not one of my favorites.
Melissa11 More than 1 year ago
Let me just start my review by thanking Netgalley and Algonquin books for letting me read this novel. I have never read a novel this far from its release date before; the experience gave me quite a (nerdy) thrill. This is your life, Harriet Chance was an intriguing read, albeit a difficult one to review. Since I have mixed feelings, I figured the best way to go about it was to break it down into lists: What I liked and What I didn't. What I liked: - It may seem silly, but I really loved the cover of this book. The design of it really drew me to the book. It is a simple, but attractive cover - sometimes minimalist is the best way to go. - The characters; Evison has created a very real, and deeply flawed set of characters. The reader cannot help but feel something for them - whether it be feeling sorrow, anger, frustration, etc. - The themes: accepting things you can't change, forgiveness, healing What I didn't like: - The constant shifting from 2nd person, to 1st person, narration throughout the chapters was disorienting. On top of this, the story was further set astray by the illogical sequence of Harriet's flashback chapters; it was as if this novel contained two stories rather than one. Eventually, however, the reader does get used to it. - I found Harriet's children to be very smothering, I felt as if they concluded that Harriet was old; therefore she was incapable of doing things herself. This is your life, Harriet Chance is a book about Mother, Daughters, making amends, starting over, and accepting things that cannot be changed. Bottom line: If you had asked me midway through "What would you rate this book?" I would have said a three. But at its conclusion, I will give this book a 4 - I think "This is your life, Harriet Chance" is a heartfelt and emotional book. Even though I acknowledged the constantly shifting narration; once I got farther into the story, I found myself getting used to the style. Sidenote: I imagine this is a book that will be a hit with bookclubs (particularly mother/daughter bookclubs). I think "This is your life, Harriet Chance" lends itself to being Analyzed and discussed. I look forward to seeing more reviews once it is released. I will be sure to check out more books by Evison in future.