The Last First Day: A Novel by Carrie Brown / Pantheon / 304 pages / 978-0307908032
Carrie Brown’s prose sucks you into a kind of lull. Images of rooms without bodies, twilights in small towns, or people caught in states of pause and repose are palpable in quiet fluidity. You feel transported to a safe place, as though fear has been exiled, excluded, forgotten. The city is not figured in this novel, but rather something rural, where established habits rule. It’s a setting organic to the life of the novel’s protagonist, who is an elderly woman. Her name is Ruth van Dusen. She does not live in a nursing home, but the novel, to an extent, feels like we’re in a convalescent home – not in a clinical kind of way – but rather how everything seems paced, as though you’re walking beside Mrs. van Dusen, listening to her reminisce in such a mellifluous manner that, at times, you feel she’s overflowing with poignancy, that you’re tempted to check your iPhone now and then, to scroll on tweets you’ve missed. But Ruth pauses, too, to listen closely to some birds tweeting, which soon fades into voices in her past.
The first chapter feels like a long pause, forty-four pages long, wherein Brown frames her protagonist in a state of solitude and unease. It is the first night of another school-year at Derry Industrial School, a vocational boarding school in Maine. The annual welcome dinner party is on schedule. Still at home preparing for the party, Ruth imagines the usual words of optimism from the headmaster in the dining hall, Peter’s welcoming voice, and later the handshakes and hobnobbing with faculty, administration, trustees, and the incoming batch of promising boys. The school consumes Peter’s energies. Though his Yale Ph.D. opened prestigious positions elsewhere, he prefers Derry’s humble mission to educate boys in “a vocational path, the gift of useful knowledge and practical skills – including the harvesting of lumber – which would arm these boys with a way to make a living in the world.” (16). He has taught history on his first year at Derry, and risen in the ranks, with wife Ruth by his side for over fifty-years. But when the school’s trustees want to “up-market […] the school’s image,”(17) Peter feels the pressure, and fears the erosion of the school’s civic-minded mission to something glamorous and elitist. Ruth is worried, but hopes this change might redirect Peter’s plans to a less hectic life – retirement – now that they’re both pushing seventy-seven.
Then, the stroke (124), albeit small, which forces Peter to retire as headmaster, and, therefore, leave their accommodations at the headmaster’s house. The community at Derry helps them settle in a tiny house, a “sun-filled A-frame at the edge of a lake in the Adirondacks” (126) that transforms their routines, which reminds Ruth of their early years in New Haven, their struggles of paying the bills, when Peter was busy with graduate school. Brown’s empathy about the struggles of elderly people shines in this part of the novel, especially when Ruth and Peter celebrate Peter’s recovery from his stroke at a nearby inn: “Getting out of the car at the inn, he gave her his hand so she could help him and smiled his lopsided smile at her.” (143). Very nice touch. The size of their sun is in that smile. The world feels new. And when Peter spits an “oopsie daisy” expression while climbing out of the canoe they were using, Ruth is touched by the old-fashion expression, which “made the tears come into her eyes.” (144) But there’s more, Brown zooms in to the couple’s celebration in bed: “When Peter pulled her against him, her back to his belly, when he kissed her neck, ran his hand down her side, following the dip of her waist and the rise of her hip, she still felt that old heat.” (145) Brown infuses her old people and their retirement years with life, with reminders of youth.
In many ways, the title also refers to the morning Ruth saw Peter when they were only children. She was twelve. This is Ruth’s first morning in Wells, Massachussetts (151), when she sees a boy in a bicycle tossing newspapers into front yards and experiences a strange connection to him, even though she couldn’t see his face, but had an intimate memory with the “shine of his hair, the line of his shoulder, the gracefulness of his posture,” (155) as though right that very moment fate and longing had sealed something in her. On the other hand, this moment in Ruth’s life represents a simple longing to be connected with other children. Raised by a single father – an auctioneer – who travels a lot, Ruth has never live anywhere longer than a few months. And even more devastating than that, Ruth has to deal with her father’s arrest, a suspect of two murders according to the FBI, and then his death, after hanging himself in his jail cell, or, someone did it for him, as Ruth and Peter speculate later. Now an orphan, the police takes Ruth to the generous hands of a local doctor in Wells who will look after her, the father of the newspaper boy she had seen early that year. That Ruth becomes part of the van Dusen family feels too clean and coindental. But it’s acceptable, since Wells is a small town. In a way, Ruth becomes a sort of brother to Peter when they were children, thus, the closeness of Ruth and Peter in the novel, a bond some readers might feel faintly incestuous. But Brown’s lyrical prose has no room for those dark perversions.
Readers might notice that while there are moments in the novel that feels ‘dead’, of Ruth immersed in extended moments of reflection and observation, Brown underhandedly omits images of coffins and cemeteries, one of the novel’s ironies, which, in many ways, rhymes with the title, that somehow Brown refuses to frame this story about the elderly in the context of death.