A Town Called Solace

A Town Called Solace, by Mary Lawson, was published in 2021

I knew nothing about this book when I bought it, other than it was recommended by Anne Tyler, one of my top five favorite writers of all time. And I can see why Lawson’s writing appeals to Tyler. It is similar in many ways — even with a close third-person narration, Lawson establishes a close connection between the reader and her characters. The most moving, compelling scenes are the ones in which nothing much happens. These are traits of Tyler’s novels that I have not experienced with others, but Lawson pulls them off well. In contrast to Tyler, this novel is plot-driven, centered around the impending death of one character and another who is missing.

There are three central characters who narrate the story in alternating chapters. Clara, an eight-year-old girl whose teenage sister Rose has recently run away from home; Liam, newly divorced and estranged from his family, has taken over the house next door to Clara; and Mrs. Orchard, terminally ill and in the hospital, has gifted that house (next door to Clara) to Liam.

Clara’s mother is beside herself, and Clara’s parents are almost neglectful of her as they helplessly await the return of their oldest daughter. Mrs. Orchard, now widowed and on her deathbed, recalls the early years of her marriage, when a devastating series of miscarriages left her entirely distraught. Around that time, young Liam’s family moved in next door and she forged a connection with young Liam that his mother could not. Having a child in her life made her feel complete, and she longed for his presence through the rest of her life.

Mrs. Orchard’s chapters are narrated in the first person, while Liam’s and Clara’s are in close-third. The effect is that as Mrs. Orchard shares her life story, it is then carried on by Clara and Liam — almost unwitting descendants to the childless woman. By placing Liam in the house next door to Clara, Mrs. Orchard sets in motion a series of events that have an outsize effect on both their lives.

From a critical perspective, this novel has a lot to say about mothers and motherhood. It is set in the 1970s, when women were largely expected to be mothers. While Mrs. Orchard is unable to have children, we can see that she had a maternal influence on Liam and even on Clara, who visited her often and is devastated by her death. Throughout the novel, Liam recalls the many happy childhood memories he had with Mrs. Orchard, and reveals the distance he feels toward his mother. In her own chapters, Mrs. Orchard recalls (from the ~1940s) Liam’s mother’s dismissiveness toward young Liam and her pregnancy; they were not precious to her, as Mrs. Orchard believed they ought to be. Here we see some evidence of Liam’s mother’s failures, in spite of her fertility, contrasted with Mrs. Orchard’s sincere desire for children and her ability — evidently throughout her life — to care as a mother for children who were not hers. Of course we do not get Liam’s mother’s perspective, but since Liam’s chapters do not relate fond memories of his own mother or any existing relationship with her, we can assume she is accurately remembered by Mrs. Orchard. The alternative possibility, of course, is that Mrs. Orchard irreparably damaged Liam’s relationship with his mother by coming between them when he was very young.

With the backdrop of the fictional Canadian town of Solace, and all its quirky, nosy neighbors, this novel was a joy to read. Four stars.

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