There is a time, a heady and seemingly limitless time, when you are on the cusp of adulthood where everything seems possible.
Everything’s on the table, you have all the time in the world (so you think) to pick them up and put them where you will at your leisure and you can’t conceive of a moment when life won’t feel fulfilled on every level.
But as Suzy Krause beautifully articulates in her perfectly-judged debut novel Valencia and Valentine, this is always the case for everyone and even when it is, the best envisaged plans don’t always find fulfillment as you might expect.
That happens for a variety of reasons but for Valencia and Valentine, who are connected by the most profound but brilliantly hidden of ways until late in the novel – their stories are told in alternating chapters, with two women separated by time and lifestyle sharing more in common than you might think – can attest to the fact that life doesn’t always, or even very often, deliver what it promises.
“It was all a dead end for someone like Valencia. The sled would find a tree halfway down that hill. She couldn’t shake a man’s hand, couldn’t hold while they watched a movie. Couldn’t eat food prepared especially for her by those hands, couldn’t ever live in an apartment where they touched the doorknobs and flipped the light switches.” (P. 33)
Valencia, for instance, started working at a debt collection agency 17 years ago, just out of school, an employment choice that she promised herself at the time would be a temporary gig only.
It has, of course, turned out to be anything but while Valencia knows she is in a massive rut and hates what she does for living, she feels powerless to do much about it.
Partly that’s due to the kind of inertia that afflicts all of us at one time or another, but largely it’s because she has struggled with OCD since she was a child and embarking on change of any kind is fraught with great difficulty. (Her mental issues are the product of childhood insecurities but also a trauma that blighted the last year or so of high school and which haunts her still.)
Only really safe in her own place, and even then not always with repetitive suggestions of doom looping in her head like some sort of oppressive, threatening crescendo – she feels that if she fails to check the stove is off that disasters without number will take place, including the burning down of her entire apartment block – Valencia wants to take some chances but has no idea how to go about doing that.
Strictly speaking that’s not true since her therapist Louise is constantly urging among other things to take a plane trip somewhere and kick that fear of flying off her list of phobias but while she likes the idea in principle, she can’t make it happen in practice.
Valentine or Mrs valentine by way of contrast appears to have done pretty much everything she set out to do.
She skipped out on work one day when she was younger – she’s currently 87 years old and prone to conversations with people who aren’t there (she doesn’t have dementia; she knows they’re there but likes to imagine what a conversation with them might be like – flew to new York, met her husband in extraordinarily meet-cute conditions and spent her brief but happy marriage (before he disappeared in Bolivia naturally) travelling and live, as Oprah would say, her best life.
Now living alone in an apartment that is cluttered and messy, she spends her days spinning the most elaborate and engaging of tales, the kind of stories that her cleaner Anna is more than happy to listen to since they are romantic, larger-than-life and proof that if you carpe diem the hell out of life, it will pay you back in spades.
And yet as Kruse weaves her extraordinarily touching and quirky tale, which shows real insight into the weird contrary nature of the human condition, especially one beset by mental health issues, it becomes obvious that there is a great deal more at play than either Valencia or Valentine are admitting.
It is the slow unravelling of the truth behind their stories that give Valencia and Valentine such a richly-immersive quality, one that draws you in so completely that while you want to race to the end of the book simply to see where it all goes, you don’t want to leave these two amazing women behind.
“In her career as a debt collector, Valencia always marveled at the way disconnecting a phone line stopped a conversation. It wasn’t like slamming a door, where either party could keep screaming through it. It wasn’t like saying ‘This conversation is over,’ which only worked if you were more stubborn than the other person. It wasn’t even like turning around and walking away. It was the only situation she could think of where you could literally turn a person’s voice completely off. It was also, she thought now, feeling guilty, grossly disrespectful and inconsiderate.” (P. 113)
Valencia and Valentine is at heart, for all its endearing quirks and eccentrically spun tales, a novel that packs quite an emotional punch.
It is hard not to read the parallel stories and not muse on the way that life, for all its promise, seems to demand so much of us that meeting its requirements, at least the ones we impose on ourselves, seems all but impossible.
The thing is that we put too much pressure on ourselves to effect a certain kind of outcome when the truth is, as Mrs Valentine beautifully makes clear at one point, there are any number of ways our lives could play out.
While Valencia remains moribund for much of the story, she begins to appreciate through her co-workers Peter and Grace that her story is far from over, something that even Mrs Valentine, though very much in the twilight of her years, has embraced with a delicious devil may care gusto.
The message of Valencia and Valentine at its heart is that life is for the living, and while we not always feel we get it right (what is right anyway?), there is never a point where we have exhausted all our options, and that if we are open to it and willing to take a chance, hard though that might be, that life might surprise in the delightful and fulfilling of ways just when we think we are all out of unexpected moments.