Novels are wonderful things for a lot of reasons. They can introduce us to new characters, let us see an old character in a new way, take us to a new world, help us discover our own world… the list is endless. But there aren’t a lot of novels that can take their readers around the world within about 400 pages.
A Life in Men is one of the few that does.
While A Life in Men focuses on the life of Mary, it tells the stories of several people. Mary was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a teenager, so she knows her life is limited. But when her healthy best friend Nix is the one that dies before they turn 20, Mary embarks on a journey to find herself – and what she can of the life Nix left behind. In the process she meets several men – some lovers and some not – who each play a significant role in how the remainder of Mary’s life will turn out.
I found Mary to be a dynamic, fairly relatable character. While I’ve never been in the position of being diagnosed with a disease such as cystic fibrosis, I can relate to Mary’s feelings of wanting to do all that she can with her life while she has the chance. I also appreciated that, while Mary did handle things fairly well, she wasn’t a perfect person. She made mistakes in how she dealt with her disease, she let her emotions get the better of her, and she didn’t treat everyone the way she should have. But those are things that nearly everyone is guilty of doing at some point in their life, and so it’s hard to judge Mary for them.
Mary, though, wasn’t my favourite aspect of A Life in Men. Throughout the novel, Gina Frangello does an absolutely wonderful job of setting the scene. She takes us on a journey around the world, everywhere from London to Mexico, South Africa to Amsterdam. While I’ve only personally been to one of the cities visited in the novel, I found that I had a fairly easy time picturing the others based solely on the descriptions that Frangello was providing. It made for some of the most concrete, clear settings I’ve ever read.
The friendship between Mary and Nix had endured since childhood, a seemingly unbreakable bond, until the mid-1980s, when the two young women embarked on a summer vacation in Greece. It was a trip initiated by Nix, who had just learned that Mary had been diagnosed with a disease that would cut her life short and who was determined that it be the vacation of a lifetime. But by the time their visit to Greece was over, Nix had withdrawn from their friendship, and Mary had no idea why.Three years later, Nix is dead, and Mary returns to Europe to try to understand what went wrong. In the process she meets the first of many men that she will spend time with as she travels throughout the world. Through them she experiences not only a sexual awakening but a spiritual and emotional awakening that allows her to understand how the past and the future are connected and to appreciate the freedom to live life adventurously.