The Narrowboat Summer
By Anne Youngson. (Flatiron Books, 319 pages, $26.99.)
Two middle-aged women, walking toward each other along a towpath near London, hear a dog yowling from inside a canalboat. They both stop to see if it needs help — and in that moment, their lives are changed. Sally, short and slender, has just left her husband of 25 years and is rethinking her future. Eve, tall and solid, has just been laid off from her job as an engineer and has no idea what she'll do next.
The dog, as it turns out, doesn't need help, but its owner does. The elderly and acerbic Anastasia is facing cancer surgery, but her boat is due for its annual maintenance and refurbishing miles away in Chester and she can't do both. "If I want to live I have to stay here" for treatment, she says. "If I'm going to carry on living the way I do, I have to go to Chester."
Eve and Sally don't know each other, and neither has ever been on a canalboat. But within days they have agreed to take the boat to Chester, about a four-week journey, and Anastasia will stay in Eve's apartment to recover after her surgery.
It is a huge credit to Anne Youngson's skills that this opening — for all of this takes place in the first chapter — feels neither contrived nor implausible. Before you know it, Eve and Sally are figuring out how to navigate locks and tunnels (and each other), and feeling the wind in their hair and the sun on their heads as they glide along at 4 mph.
Along the way they meet other river rats (characters all), learn about the history and engineering of canals (of particular interest to engineer Eve, of course) and put decisions about their future on hold.
"The Narrowboat Summer" is a gentle, meandering tale, intelligently told and with no easy conclusions. While it unfolds at about the same pace as the puttering boat, it never drags. Like Youngson's first novel, "Meet Me at the Museum," its themes are hopeful ones, about the possibility of change and rebirth in midlife. Beauty, calm and inspiration, wrapped in a good story.