Wednesday, January 8, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to put a dent in my TBR pile. The first book I pulled out was The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino.

The book is structured as a novel in a novel.

The outer skeleton focuses on the residents of the retirement home, nicknamed “the Pen.” A luxury retirement home on the beach in Bar Harbor, founded by a famous (now deceased) literary agent turned doctor, the Pen is home to such (fictional) literary giants as Olivia Peppernell and Raymond Switcher, and editor Judi Arsenault. They are old friends and sometime rivals. Their days are reinvigorated by the arrival of the most renowned writer of them all, Alphonse Carducci. He lived large and had affairs at various times with Olivia and Judi, but the love of his life was the literary agent who founded the home and bequeathed it to him.

The home is staffed by a kindly doctor/psychiatrist, unnamed nurses, and three orderlies. The orderlies, misfits and outcasts, also live in the home. Cecibel Bringer is one of these.

Cecibel suffered a horrific car crash years earlier that left her with severe scarring over half her face. Her physical scars lead her to hide from the world, but her emotional scars are even more devastating. She isn’t sure the car wreck was an accident.

Cecibel’s favorite writer is Alphonse Carducci. When he arrives, a chain reaction occurs throughout the home. Writers need to write, and they had all given up. But Cecibel becomes Alphonse’s muse. He begins writing again. Olivia catches him at it and they start trading off, writing a love story, alternating chapters and viewpoints. Judi transcribes the hand-written notes, cleaning up but not altering anything. When Olivia gets stuck, she allows Raymond to insert a character of his own. For writers, the greatest gift anyone could give them is another chance to create.

For Alphonse, it’s also a chance for one more love, one different from the whirlwind affairs of his earlier days. This time, he’s able to give more than he takes.

The story is a beautiful though sad depiction of aging and dying. The writers look back on their lives with a mixture of triumph, regret, and resignation. Cecibel’s encounters with Alphonse open her up to the possibilities of her own life and help her to confront her past.

These chapters mingle with chapters written by the residents: the story of Cecelia, Aldo, Enzo, and Tressa. Although it does, in a way, suck the reader in, the story written collaboratively by the fictional authors is kind of cheesy and cliche. It’s a fun read, and has some pretty prose, but as the authors said “no planning,” it has an appropriately sloppy plot and stereotyped characters.

The novel overall works very well as the backstories of each of the residents and orderlies unfold and become intertwined in a subdued way. The story they write adds passion and pizzazz.