Is it possible to reach old age and have no regrets?
In Bobbie Ann Mason’s poignant novel “Dear Ann,” Ann Workman, now in her 70s, is aboard a cruise ship in 2017, thinking back on her life. If only she had not left Kentucky for grad school in Binghamton, New York, in 1966 — if only she had taken her professor’s advice and headed to Stanford, instead. “Her life would have been different,” she thinks. “She wouldn’t be in this nightmarish mirage on an alien sea.”
The tale that unfolds is a profound examination of grief, regret and memory, wrapped in a compelling story of first love. Mason’s confident writing does not miss a step.
“Dear Ann” immerses the reader in the Summer of Love as Ann pictures an alternate life in California. The story is interspersed with letters Ann received at the time and the occasional reminder from 2017 that this is not the way things actually went. Such re-imaginings are not unusual for her. “She had a habit of escaping into mind-numbing pastimes. ... She was always thinking of somewhere else.”
Mason’s depiction of 1967 California is phenomenal. She gets everything right — not just the details of the music, drugs, clothing, war protests and student life, but the emotions: the atmosphere of grad school, with its pompous, posturing students, “know-it-all pedants competing like Quiz Kids, each trying to sound more professorial than the professor.” The innocence and intensity of first love; the exhilaration (and guilt) of growing up and growing away from childhood and family.
“The best time of my life,” her friend Chip says years later. “And of course the saddest.”
The memory that 2017 Ann is desperate to avoid — or somehow miraculously change — is that of her first love, Jimmy, a misfit like herself, passionate about music and literature. He has long curly hair and intense blue eyes, and he dresses in ink-stained khakis and a duffle coat, “an undergraduate wardrobe he hadn’t worn out yet.”
But up he pops at Stanford just as he had in Binghamton, sitting across from her in the “Kelly and Sheets class” — his name for the seminar on Keats and Shelley.
“He isn’t supposed to be here,” she thinks from the deck of her 2017 cruise ship. She hopes that California “can be a different story. ... The setting will change everything. ... You can keep the good parts.”
DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
But the setting changes nothing. The story unrolls swiftly, with the Vietnam War a constant and growing presence looming in the background of their lives.
“I want to remind everybody,” says Chip, who shows up at dinner one night wearing an army surplus paratroop suit. “Here it is. War, war, war. We can’t forget it.”
Jimmy imagines being in Vietnam — “If this war keeps up, I’ll wind up in the Mekong Delta frat,” he says, but Ann just laughs. His grad school deferment will keep him safe. Stanford is their bubble.
“She was glad she didn’t know anyone in the military,” she thinks. But as the story builds, so does a sense of doom.
Curious readers can spend a lot of time poking around various rabbit holes, trying to figure out if Ann is a fictionalized version of the author — not only do they share a name, but both came of age in the 1960s, grew up in rural Kentucky and attended graduate school in Binghamton.
Mason says in her afterword that all of the characters are imaginary, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. Just as with Ann’s memories, the facts barely matter — this book is as true as they come.
“Dear Ann” by Bobbie Ann Mason; Harper (352 pages, $27.99)