I have two secret wishes that I think betray how awesome I’m going to be at old age. The first is that I have always – always – wanted to go on a cruise. A children-less, alcohol-fueled cruise to various ports of call, at which I would disembark for the better part of an afternoon to buy tchotchkes and eat meals in fancy oceanside restaurants. I’m not saying I’m not aware of the various misadventures that can befall one on maritime vacations (we all went through poop cruise); I’m just saying that in a best-case-scenario, where the weather is lovely and my room is spacious and there are no icebergs, I think a cruise could be fun.
My other Secret Old Person Opinion is that I am pumped to live in a retirement community (again, in a best-case scenario where my room is spacious and there are no icebergs). My very first job was as busperson (feminism) for the swank dining room of a upscale retirement community in the DC suburbs. Outside of the elderly’s very serious demands when it comes to seating arrangements (“But I always sit at the third table on the left”), the job wasn’t bad: generally respectful clientele, no kids throwing food on the floor, and free dinner (plus waffle-bar Sundays). But more importantly, it didn’t seem that bad for them either. Retirement communities are where you can chill with other old people, take things slowly, have your meals delivered and be cranky without etiquette-related ramifications. I mean, I bet you only have to wear shoes like, 30% of the time. And finally, perhaps most importantly, in a retirement community you got people looking out for you.
Ruth Field, the protagonist of Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, could stand to check out a retirement community. At 75, Ruth lives alone by the ocean, in the Australia house she once shared with her now-deceased husband. Ruth’s children are adults, and their relationship with her is perfunctory, distant. One day, she is visited by Frida Young, a magnetic and intimidating woman who claims to be a home aide sent by the government to help care for her. Dubious but perhaps unconsciously eager for the company, Ruth opens herself up to Frida, who wastes little time imposing her will in the household.
I don’t think I am revealing too much by saying that Frida’s sudden and unsolicited presence is suspect; if the rising action of a novel is the introduction of one woman, then clearly she is a person to be watched. And yet it is not the truth about Frida that makes The Night Guest such an interesting read; it is that a part of Ruth prefers Frida’s company to learning that truth. Ruth may be old, and she may sometimes flicker on the cusp of dementia, but she is not dumb: She knows that there is more to Frida than meets the eye, and simply chooses to look the other way. Ruth is “prepared to accommodate the possibility that good strangers could materialize and love her for no reason beyond their goodness.”
The Night Guest is McFarlane’s first novel, and the writing itself is quite lovely. Ruth is “afraid of being unmasked by [her sons’] youthful authority;” Frida “exhales through her nose with an equine vigor;” feeling young is “like an address she’d returned to, wondering why she’d been away so long.” The novel is full of quiet insights, clever turns of phrase, and a sobriety that makes even if its most fantastical moments feel serious.
And there are fantastical moments. The book’s title refers to a tiger that Ruth hears loping through her parlor at night, snuffling, bumping into furniture, and scratching at her door. It is a tiger she has never seen. It’s a tiger that makes the sudden presence of a home health aide seem not entirely off the mark. It’s the tiger your ninth-grade English teacher would probably make you write an essay about.
The Night Guest isn’t just about getting old and becoming vulnerable to the ill intentions of others. It’s about relationships: what forms them, what becomes of them, what we sacrifice to make sure we don’t lose them. What happens when we do. Which brings me back to retirement communities. Because when your kids are grown and your husband’s passed away and you’re starting to hear jungle cats scratching around your living room…well, doesn’t a waffle-bar Sunday sound nice?
TITLE: The Night Guest
AUTHOR: Fiona McFarlane
PAGES: 256 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: Misery meets Driving Miss Daisy
FIRST LINE: “Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said ‘Tiger.'”