Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson: My take on the book


A Year by the Sea, the 1999 memoir by Joan Anderson  is basically about a woman in the second half of life rediscovering herself. When her husband gets a financial opportunity in another part of the country she doesn’t do the expected thing. Finding she doesn’t want to go, realizing she’s not even sure how she feels about him anymore, she retreats to a a family cottage in Cape Cod. Not an easy thing to do after 20 something years of marriage and raising a couple of sons, but she does it. 

The book comes out of her experience, much like a journal, detailing her activities, thoughts and feelings. I find I liked the book best when, like any good story teller, the writer follows the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. 



For example, early on in the book Joan describes how when they were children, she and her cousin—whose family had a cottage at the edge of the marsh—
“would run to the end of a very long jetty, plunge into the cool salt water, and let the current carry us all the way back to her cottage door.
 On stormy days, when the boat traffic was light, we would slip off our bathing suits and skinny-dip, letting the rush of water and sea lettuce caress our bodies. Our glee was punctuated with high-pitched squeals as one or the other hit a cold spot or chanced a foot a foot on the sandy bottom, where crabs lay in wait to nibble our toes.’’
Then she goes on to talk about ebb tide and compares it to being a woman.
It occurs to me, just now, that perhaps ebbing can be a rest time, a ‘‘psychic slumber’’ from a lifetime of learning to be a woman. I never thought about just being still, caught up as I was with escape and all that it entails.
I’m tired of swimming upstream, against the current, only to arrive at unnatural destinations with little sense of where to yield, when to sow, what to ask, how to find.’’ 
 If you like that, you’ll enjoy the book. 



Each chapter begins with a meaningful quote then goes into a memory or an activity all of which leads to more self-discovery and Joan’s inner thoughts about it. 

I found the book annoying me in parts. Reading it, I looked for ways to pick it apart, to question its authenticity. I highlighted a passage that begins 
‘I think it was Picasso who said he spent the first half of his life becoming an adult and the last half learning to be a child.’
You think? Come on, Joan. This is a book, fact checked, edited and published. Why not “It was Picasso...’’?  This feels disingenuous. 

I highlighted another passage, later in the book, where she talks about being invited to the party at the fish market where she’s taken a part time job, and she spends a page worrying about what to wear, all so she can talk about her weight issues, yet never takes us to the party. 

Why am I being so picky? I usually despise criticizing other peoples art, their books, their paintings, their movies. I try to look for ways to celebrate the good. I realize I’m jealous.

Who wouldn’t love a year by the sea? A house that someone else pays for while you find yourself? A published author, a success in her own right, Joan Anderson isn’t your average woman. Her year by the sea doesn’t reflect a reality many of us share or could afford to share. Before she takes a job at the fish market, her only activity is her daily trip to the post office hoping to find a check or two as it’s royalty month. Must be nice, my inner mean me sneers.

Following the book, there are book club questions. Because yes, this is the kind of book we love to talk about, sharing our experiences and the ways we’ve struggled to live our own fullest lives. 

One of those questions says ‘the author has come to believe that all women should make it a priority to get away alone for two full days each year. Do you believe such a ‘sabbatical’ would be helpful for every woman? How would you imagine spending two days alone and what would you hope to take away from it?

Two full days, huh? I wonder if that counts travel time? I find I’m offended; she gets a year, we get a couple of days. I suppose that speaks to the author and her publisher’s awareness of the financial and family ties that bind most of us. For me, a woman in my sixties, who has had my own midlife crisis where I have felt my own failures in life deeply, I resent this woman who seems to have had it all, but who has failed to appreciate it. 

From what I understand, the film Year by the Sea, pulls not from just this book but from Anderson’s other reflective books as well: An Unfinished Marriage, A Walk by the Sea, Weekend to Change Your Life. I’m actually looking forward to the film starring Karen Allen, despite my grumpiness with Anderson’s cottage industry of helping women find themselves.

End of the day, I find I can’t separate myself enough to give you an unbiased ‘review’ of the book, except to say while I would have liked a bit more of a story and less of an inner monologue, on the whole the book is well written. 




The movie, which also features S. Epatha Merkerson, Celia Imrie, Yannick Bisson and Michael Christofer, made its’ NYC debut last night, and opens in the Los Angeles area on September 15th. Check the Year by the Sea website to see when it’s playing at a theater near you.

Judging by the trailer, it looks good to me




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