What do you do when you’ve followed all the rules that “they” told you would bring you happiness and security? You got married, had children, and created a life you thought would last for this lifetime, at least—and then you find out that life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it to.
The two main characters in Phyllis Schieber’s latest novel, Willing Spirits, are lifelong friends and school teachers in their forties, who each find themselves at a crossroads in their lives. Jane has been unhappily married for years and comes home early one day to find her husband, Arnold in a compromising position with a student in their bed. Gwen married young and was abandoned as a young mother with two sons by her professor husband; she has been conducting an affair with the husband of a colleague for the past several years.
As the novel unfolds, we learn about the strong bond these two women share: their family histories and the decisions they made in the past that inform their present lives. What I like about Schieber’s writing is that her characterizations of these women and the complex lives they lead feel very real and relatable. Although we don’t always approve of the decisions they’ve made, we understand, for example, why Jane didn’t leave Arnold sooner and why Gwen has found it safer to have an affair with a married man than to let herself be truly vulnerable in relationship.
At a certain point in the novel Arnold insists on meeting Jane at the airport, and she realizes that she can’t go back to him:
If only he had told about his dream and how much it terrified him, Jane might have thought to love him again. But Arnold refused to change. He preferred to close his eyes, to sleep night after night and keep them tightly shut against anything that might divulge either his fears or his longing. And so Jane believed that his sleep would forever be without color or sound, and his waking would be the same.
This is a book you won’t want to put down once you start reading it. If I have any criticism of this novel, it is that the male characters come across as one dimensional, and seem to pale in comparison to the richness of the female characters.