Julie Thompson reviews Times of Our Lives by Jane Waterton
Welcome to OWLs, a veritable paradise in Australia. OWLs has its genesis in the facility’s owner and manger Louise’s determination to create a safe haven for mature lesbians. Louise worked in a nursing home in the late 1980s. During her tenure, she worked with elderly lesbians who had been separated from their partners by their families. Together, with the assistance of her partner, Caro, her vision for OWLs became a thriving reality. The retirement complex welcomes its 10th anniversary and it is at this time that the reader observes the singular, yet deeply connected lives of the women who call OWLs home.
Within this microcosm, the reader becomes privy to the stories of eight women. Retirement for many of these women doesn’t mean checking out of life. They find community, friendship, and love as the new chapter of their lives unfolds. The main underlying theme is that it is never too late to live your life. Waterton uses the seasons to frame the changes that develop in the lives of her protagonists over the course of a year. Their fears and desires seem to both hinder and help them, resulting in humorous situations and heart wrenching consequences.
A couple points drew me to this story. For starters, the women are all over the age of 60, with the exception of the OWL’s owners and a couple other minor characters. Waterton illuminates the third age in the lives of these women as a time to fully engage in and explore themselves and the world around them. Gone are the senior citizens who are shunted off to “old folks’ homes”, where the men and women await death and sit forgotten by society. As Sparrow, one of OWL’s residents, remarks,
“When my grandmother was my age, although she kept fairly active, it was if she had lived her life and was just waiting to die.” (ebook p. 75)
Secondly, the setting: Australia! Ever since childhood, I’ve been enamoured by the “Land Down Under”. I couldn’t resist trying to read all of the dialogue with an Australian accent (not aloud, though!).
Waterton weaves individual, couples, and group story lines together. Each pair of women reflects relationships at different stages. There are a pair of women partnered for nearly fifty years; best friends who would rather stay friends than risk losing that bond by professing their love; a new couple excited, yet wary; and two women partnered in love and business.
Pat and Bella, partners for over 45 years, have made their home at OWLs for the past several years. Although they have strong bonds, Bella’s fight with cancer has both women struggling to define their personal boundaries. It’s in the moments when they turn to their friends for comfort and advice that we witness the depths of their guilt, discomfort, and love. Their storyline culminates (or rather, begins anew) with a celebration of their love and a renewal of their commitment to each other through better or worse. Waterton presents Pat’s and Bella’s (and Pat and Bella’s) emotional journey through illness and aging with sensitivity and humor.
Meg Sullivan and Allie Richards have been best friends for over 40 years. They may not always agree – Meg is impulsive and sporty, while Allie errs on the side of caution and loves to cook, but it’s those differences that enrich and balance their friendship. From close friends to casual acquaintances, everyone picks up on the unspoken love between the two women. Their fear over losing the person they care about most by saying “I love you” is a feeling to which many people can relate. Even when after a health crisis, the two women still cannot own or put a name to their feelings. However, their friends rally around them. This support network is one of the most important elements in this book and really shines in the scenes in which the women struggle.
Daphne Williams and Sparrow Hopkins are the community’s new couple. They start off slowly, going on a few dates, before they fall headlong into a passionate romance. And then just like that, Daphne withdraws from the relationship. Sparrow, however, is not as delicate as her name may suggest; she instead shows a kind of tough love as she waits for Daphne’s head to catch up with her heart. Just as the novel shows how one can make new choices and alter their routines, it also shows through Daphne and Sparrow’s relationship that there are certain things that may not be worth compromising on.
Caro and Louise provide the indefatigable, unwavering foundation of OWLs. While Times of Our Lives directs most of its attention to the dramas surrounding the residents, it does give insights into the women who make this retirement community possible. The inter-generational chemistry between the middle-aged owners and the Older (sometimes) Wiser tenants is wonderful to read.
Some of the stand-out group scenes include a Tupperware presentation that turns the representative into an unwitting accomplice in the re-purposing of kitchen tools and an after-hours pool party where the women throw more than just caution to the wind. These events add levity and allow new friends, like Sparrow, with opportunities to integrate into the group dynamic.
Waterton has delivered a wonderful debut novel. Times of Our Lives is a jubilant celebration of life that leaves you reconsidering what it means to grow older.
Thank you, Ylva Publishing, for the opportunity to review this title.