‘Being Esther,” Miriam Karmel’s assured first novel, examines the unremarkable life of Esther Lustig, 85 and widowed, living alone in a Chicago apartment building. We meet her as she flips through the pages of her ancient address book, “checking to see who is here and who has gone to the other side.” When she dials the Markels’ number in Phoenix — Sonia and she had been schoolgirls together — Buddy picks up on the fifth ring. They chat about the Starrlites, the group of giddy girls she and Sonia belonged to decades ago, and about the vacations in San Miguel they all later took with their husbands each year, the details of which Buddy now can’t seem to recall. She asks him to put Sonia on the line, Sonia who would remember the squawking parrot and the sweet panaderia breads and the margaritas, but as has happened so many times lately, Esther learns her friend is forever unreachable.
Esther is mostly content, except when her “tightly wound” daughter Ceely visits, bringing glossy pamphlets featuring Cedar Shores, a retirement community Esther privately calls “Bingoland,” to which she vows she’ll never go. Esther’s friend Helen lives there, “lost from the inside out,” oblivious to the blush wine served before dinner on Saturday nights, mauve cloth napkins at each place in the dining room and weekly outings to the supermarket. Esther “wishes there were better road maps for growing old.” She’s determined to stay put, although she frets about dementia and wonders if she’ll know when she crosses into that territory.
Karmel seeds Esther’s past into the quiet present-time narrative, gradually revealing the bitter quarrels with her mother, the anguish of Ceely’s running away to a commune in Burlington and her still-festering anger over husband Marty’s pretending to switch TV channels with the remote when she was talking to him. Both spouses were guilty of minor transgressions — there was her “svelte summer” dalliance with Hank Stammler, the handsome neighbor who shocked them all by going out for cigarettes and never returning, and Marty’s yearlong fling. Being Esther has meant a full, if ordinary life, made up of equal parts of grief and satisfaction.
Despite her arthritic hands and dimming eyesight, Esther still manages to make waves in her circumscribed world: She has a grocery store run-in with a rude woman on a cellphone, takes a trip to Mexico with Ceely and dolls herself up in her flattering blue dress to meet a gentleman for dinner. Karmel’s accomplished debut illustrates the bittersweet truth that we live our quotidian lives and we worry about the manner of our leave-taking, but if we’re lucky, we come to understand, as Esther does, that despite our bewilderment at finding ourselves old, “our lives are enriched by the minor interactions that present themselves every day.”
Kathryn Lang, former SMU Press editor, is a freelance reviewer living in Arlington, Texas.