A Quiet Life by Ethan Joella

Review by Walter Cummins

When I’m reviewing a book, I defer from reading other reviews until I’ve written my own to avoid influencing my reaction. But in the case of Ethan Joella’s A Quiet Life, I felt a need to see what others had to say because I don’t consider myself a clean-slate reader. It’s not that I know the author. Many authors whose works I’ve reviewed are friends and acquaintances, and I believe I can be objective. If I don’t like something a friend has written, I’ll weasel out and just choose not to write about it. In the case of A Quiet Life my complication is not authorial friendship but deep familiarity with the subject at the heart of the novel—grief.

My own wife died a little over a year ago and I have been participating in an online grief group from shortly after her death, as well as sharing feelings with friends coping with a similar loss. In fact, I’m much like Joella’s character Chuck Ayers, who begins the novel holding his late wife Cat’s bath towel, unable to give it up or clear his home of her other possessions. Me too. If not a specific towel, I have one in place where my wife’s hung on our towel rack. Both Chuck and I lost our wives to cancer. Despite our differences as men, we share similar basic reactions. Would reviewing Chuck as a character be equivalent to reviewing me as a person? If I conclude that Joella captured the essence of a certain form of grief, would I be making a psychological judgment rather than a literary evaluation?

And so, I decided to find out what other reviewers had to say about the novel, assuming that they are not recent widowers, nor are they like some in my grief group who mourn the death of parents, siblings, and fiancés. I’m counting on these reviewers to consider A Quiet Life as a novel rather than therapy.

Chuck isn’t the only character in the novel to experience loss. Kirsten’s father was murdered during a filling station robbery.  Ellen’s young daughter was kidnapped by her estranged husband. David shares his two children from the wife he is separated from. A Quiet Life is a novel about death and loss, people locked in emotional traps, unable to move on with their lives. The dramatic dilemma they all face is achieving the ability to find a future. I certainly get it and know that my fellow grievers do, too.

Does all this make for a successful novel? What do other reviewers have to say?

Bookpage judges, “Joella’s characters are as real as they come … As these stories come together, Joella extols what is common to all of humanity: We need each other, both in celebration and in mourning. One of the most meaningful things a person can say is simply ‘I’m here,’ and this is the level of profound connection that Joella evokes without ever straying into cliché.”

Booklist comes to a similar conclusion: “Empathetic without becoming saccharine, A Quiet Life highlights the power of closure and the importance of a connected, compassionate community.”

Publishers Weekly takes issue with the linking of characters while finding some emotional satisfaction: “The interconnections feel manufactured, though as the characters make small progress in their efforts to move on from their pain and dilemmas, Joella builds toward a convincing set of resolutions. Readers might feel like they’ve been here before, but it’s comforting nonetheless.”

My own relationships lead me to dismiss the complaint about manufactured interconnections. Close friends and just people I know, and who know each other, share recent deaths of loved ones along with serious hospitalizations. One friend even had a son run down by a reckless driver, agonizing through months of brain-damaged pain before he died. Our shared situations are not contrived.

The more crucial literary question Joella faced was giving his characters release without falling into cliché or sentimentality. My own experience and those of others is that grief does not go away and returns in unexpected waves. In the words of a woman widowed after a long marriage, “I feel that I’m living half a life.” But she is carrying on with friends and family. It’s not as rich as her previous life, but the presence of others allows her to persist. That’s the essence of the multiple resolutions of A Quiet Life.

Joella succeeds in avoid simplified satisfaction by making his characters “as real as they come.” Because they are so convincing as people, their emotions are authentic, their ability to break free of grief’s trap believable, coming from within rather than imposed by the trick of a wishful plot.

He captures the complexity of his characters’ troubled states as with this evocation of Chuck’s uncertainty when having dinner at a neighbor’s: “Chuck feels like he’s been here too long. Whenever he’s out, he has the feeling he should be getting home. What is that feeling, that need to guard the house? He never had it before she died, but now he is attached to that place, like it’s a roped-off exhibit of their marriage. Some nights he dreams of the house being empty, and he wakes up startled, sweating. Yet when he’s home, he gets tired of the quiet and the long stretches of nothing.”

This is a novel that understands the dislocation of grief.