Toronto writer Katherine Ashenburg is the author of the 2018 novel "Sophia and Cecilia," as well as four previous non-fiction books.Photo: Joy von Tiedemann
Katherine Ashenburg’s New Novel Confronts the Consequences, and Truth, of Second Acts
In "Her Turn," the Toronto writer spectacularly blows up the life of her protagonist – a divorced, 48-year-old newspaper editor – to get to the heart of forgiveness / BY Katherine Ashenburg / July 30th, 2021
When I started writing my novel Her Turn, I knew that I wanted to nudge, if not jolt, my heroine into the second act of her life. Liz is 48, has a university-age son, lots of friends and a great job as an editor at a national newspaper. On the surface, she looks as if she is thriving, but Liz is stuck emotionally and has been since her nasty divorce 10 years ago. She chooses men who are unsuitable or unavailable, such as the feckless freeloader her son calls “the creepy poet” or her married boss, with whom she’s having an affair. When she encounters her ex-husband or his wife, she has no idea how to act natural. She even avoids listening to the music that takes her back to the sorrowful early days of their separation.
It’s normal to want to avoid pain, including the memory of pain. But I don’t think I fully realized when I began writing the novel that Liz could only walk wholeheartedly into a new life once she made some kind of friendship with her pain and her past. That friendship is partial and tentative. Maybe it’s better to think of it as an accommodation, but it’s healthier than trying to wipe out your past – which won’t work anyway.
Writing the novel and watching Liz’s evolving reactions taught me that. First I had to throw her tidy life off the rails and provoke her into a new emotional availability. What accomplishes that is a submission she receives for the column she edits from Nicole, her ex-husband’s second wife and the other woman during their marriage. Concealing her identity from Nicole, Liz engages in a one-sided relationship that unexpectedly brings her an understanding of the other woman’s life. The duplicity also results in more than one acrimonious crisis with Nicole and her husband Sidney. Angry scenes follow, but they’re Liz’s first honest interactions with Nicole and more than she has had for years with Sidney.
Rewriting the Past
With Liz’s new openness, long-ago memories of Sidney surface and their meaning shifts. She remembers the first Christmas after their separation listening to Sidney weeping on the phone while their young son sang “Oh, bring us a figgy pudding” in the background. At the time, she was still so angry that she couldn’t summon up much, if any, feeling for Sidney. But now, 10 years later, “this memory took its place in the catalogue of what all three of them had lost.” The idea that Sidney, along with his wife and son, lost something important is a departure for Liz.
In the course of the novel, Liz reaches a point where she can admit that the ties that still bind her to Sidney are not all bad. “Seeing him was a complicated, layered business that always brought a measure of discomfort,” she thinks, “but it gave her something too.”
Novelists sometimes say that their characters go off and do things on their own, which I’ve always thought sounded just too mystical. But I have to admit that Liz could surprise me: yes, I had put her in a certain situation, and in retrospect there was something inevitable about her reaction, but I couldn’t always predict how a scene would end. A case in point is the night Liz goes to a cuddle party, accompanying a colleague who is writing a feature about these evenings where strangers embrace unerotically. Shy at first, the new Liz takes to hugging, cuddling and spooning enthusiastically. She notices a man with a Cupid’s bow mouth like Sidney’s. It was “the only delicate thing in his craggy face. She used to tease him about having the mouth of a starlet.” She asks the man, with whom she is lying on a mattress, if she can touch his mouth, and he agrees. “It felt to Liz as if she had been wanting to touch a Cupid’s bow mouth for a very long time. Maybe ten years. When the bell rang, her eyes were wet and she burrowed her head in [the man’s] chest so he would not see, but he produced a handkerchief from his sweatpants and dried her eyes.”
By the end of Her Turn, ironically, both Nicole and Sidney value Liz’s perspective on their marriage, something that would have been unimaginable at the start of the novel. Satisfying as that is, Liz understands that their camaraderie has its limits. Joking that she has retired from couples therapy, she thinks, “Sidney and Nicole would be fine without her.”
A friend gives Liz a key to living with the memory of her marriage: “Someone told me once that you never really get over anything. You just figure out a way of carrying it around as gently as possible.” Liz has figured out a way to carry her first marriage around as gently as possible, and she’s ready for the next act. Second acts are great in life, as they are in plays. But just as the second act of a play has to build upon the first act, second acts in life work best when they integrate, not eradicate, the first act. Liz and I learned that together.
Katherine Ashenburg’s novel “Her Turn” will be published by Knopf Canada on Aug. 3.