Richard Russo Explores the Complexity of Friendship
Friends are, without a doubt in my mind, one of the more important elements in life which can lead to personal fulfillment… yet nevertheless, they can also be a great source of anguish, either through betrayal or even some sort of shared trauma.
I think most of us have or will at some point get a glimpse at both of those worlds, but I believe few of us will suffer them to as extensive an extreme as the characters in Richard Russo’s latest novel, Chances Are …
The story opens by introducing us to three old friends from different walks of life, gathered together forty years down the line from their college days on Martha’s Vineyard, their personal little sanctuary. There is Lincoln the commercial real-estate broker, Mickey the aging musician, and Teddy the tiny-press publisher.
Overtly-speaking, they were only meant to gather together to enjoy each other’s company, and perhaps reminisce about the good old days when their lives still largely existed in the realms of limitless potential. However, with so much past behind them, some memories are bound to be more painful than others.
More precisely, in addition to each of the three men having his own shack of secrets, the three friends also share a common burden and tragedy: the mysterious disappearance of Jacy Calloway, the woman they all fell in love with. It doesn’t take too long for a quiet friendly retreat to turn into a thorough examination of each man’s life, attempting desperately to piece one last time a mystery which deeply wounded them all.
As more and more of the past keeps on surfacing, a darkness begins to loom over the vineyard, and our three protagonists discover just how rewarding, yet painful and constricting the ties of friendship can end up becoming.
The Dynamics of Flawed People
If there is one primary strength which I believe should be attributed to Russo as an author, it’s his ability to write about men and flesh them out into profound, complex and extremely believable beings.
He has a superb talent for shaping them not only through descriptive passages, but largely through their actions and dialogue. While the story does begin with some preliminary information about the formative years of our protagonists, they generally talk little about themselves, and yet we get a crystal-clear picture of who they are on the inside over the course of the story.
Russo pays a particular amount of attention throughout the entire story at the dynamics which govern this small group of friends. Much of the dialogue reveals little bits and pieces of information about how each of the men impacted the other ones’ lives, what they thought and think of each other, and essentially, how their actions and decisions were affected by their friendship.
While most authors lack the capability of portraying groups of people in a believable fashion, in Russo’s case this group of friends feels very natural and realistic to the story. They interact with each other with the freedom you would imagine people who have known each other for decades would have, as well as the calculated reservedness you would expect from people with secrets, trauma and general life experience.
I believe one of the reasons we get to have such an in-depth study at these three characters is the way in which the narrative often travels into their memories and takes us out of the present into their past which took place in the 1960s and 70s.
While I personally wasn’t alive to remember the Vietnam draft and the college experience during this time, it did feel to me as if Russo largely drew from his own memory and experiences for how believably they were depicted. If you yourself remember this time period, I do believe there will be quite a few elements in Chances Are … which will make you feel a bit more at home.
A Mystery for the Ages
The people who make up our lives consistently come and go, with very few staying there for the long run, if any in some cases. Most of the time, we don’t spend much energy wondering about what might have happened to them or where they might be now, many years down the line.
However, I believe we all have at least one person in mind who simply vanished from our lives one day, never to be seen again to our chagrin. I feel this is precisely what makes the mystery component of Chances Are … so attractive: it’s relatable to virtually anyone, exponentially more-so to those of a more advanced age.
It was both captivating and somewhat heartbreaking to see the three friends somewhat desperately try and piece together what happened to Jacy, especially as we learned a greater deal about their days in college and how they considered her “one of the gang”.
The mystery gains in amplitude not only through the various alarming discoveries we inevitably make, but largely through our growing knowledge of what she meant to our protagonists. The fact of the mystery’s resolution perhaps being useless in the end from a pragmatic perspective adds a very palpable layer of sorrow to the whole thing, despite the many comedic moments which contrast with it.
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While Chances Are … is largely a study of people, or more precisely, a long-standing group of friends, this doesn’t mean there is a lack of intrigue or development to be found. Russo did put a good number of twists and revelations for the characters to go through, and the question of what actually happened to Jacy does slowly consume any other priorities our characters might have in their lives.
I think the author did an excellent job at drumming up the mystery and giving us the right bits of information, answering some questions we had while raising new ones. In other words, from a purely entertainment perspective, Chances Are … doesn’t fail to deliver in spite of its strong focus on character dynamics.
The Final Verdict
Chances Are … by Richard Russo is a novel we could definitely call “one of a kind”, simultaneously being a profound study of friendship and a compelling disappearance mystery which might get solved forty years down the line by our three very distinct and interesting protagonists. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the study of character relations and mysteries from the deep past.
Richard Russo is an American screenwriter, teacher, short story writer and novelist, whose first novel, Mohawk was published when he was still an English teacher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Some of his other notable novels include Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool and Straight Man. He was also the recipient of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.