Evvie Drake Starts Over
By Linda Holmes
Ballantine. 304 pp. $26
“Go now, or you’ll never go,” the title character steels herself in the opening pages of “Evvie Drake Starts Over.” Evvie has a suitcase in the car and an envelope of cash in the glove compartment. She is about to leave her husband.
Then, the phone rings. Her husband, Tim, whom she’s been with “half her life,” is dead - killed in a car accident.
So begins NPR pop culture critic Linda Holmes’ debut novel, which paints a portrait of a 30-something widow who didn’t want to be married and asks the question: How do you grieve someone you didn’t like?
Evvie, Holmes writes, is “consumed by not missing” her husband.
“She could fill up whole rooms with how it felt to be the only person who knew that she barely loved him when she’d listened to him snoring lightly on the last night he was alive. Monster, monster, she thought.”
Is she the monster? Or is her husband? The doctor she married emerges only in snippets from the past and in dreams, where he is manipulative and mean, telling Evvie she’s dramatic and throwing a wine glass at her feet.
A friend asks Evvie: “Did he hurt you? Were you scared of him?” Evvie thinks, “Does dreading every conversation with him count? Does tensing up when he came into the room count?”
There is much to mine here, but Holmes dances around the subtext of emotional abuse. It’s hinted at, along with Evvie’s own abandonment issues, but never rises to the foreground.
Instead, a second (and far less compelling) lead character emerges. Dean Tenney is a Major League Baseball pitcher struggling with the “yips.” He can’t throw a strike anymore, and he can’t figure out why. He comes to Maine to visit an old friend and wait out the media storm, moving into the empty apartment in Evvie’s house. The two become fast friends, but under strict conditions: Dean won’t ask about Evvie’s husband and Evvie won’t ask about Dean’s baseball career.
Predictably, it doesn’t last.
Evvie finds Dean one night pitching pine cones against her fence.
“She wondered if he did this everywhere all the time, with oranges in supermarket alleys and snow globes behind souvenir shops and sea urchins from the tide pools into the sides of bleached-out boathouses, hurling everything over and over until it finally fell apart. She wanted to know if he thought he’d go back to pitching. She wanted to ask all the questions she promised she wouldn’t - was he crazy, was he messed up, did something happen, what happened?”
The novel, set in Maine, seems destined to be read in summertime (preferably on a rocky beach, in view of a lighthouse). Perhaps it’s better that the darker material never overwhelms the story. Instead, this is escapism at its finest, focused on two people who have had an abrupt change in plans and must forge a path forward.
And, inevitably, it’s a love story. The kind you can slip in and out of reading, as you would a pool, and still find yourself totally immersed.
Depenbrock is a digital producer for WAMU 88.5, Washington, D.C.’s NPR station.