‘Chances Are’ by Richard Russo

‘Chances Are’ is a book where I found myself admiring the craftsmanship of the storytelling and nodding in agreement with observations on the relationship between memory and truth, the consensual fictions that sustain friendships, the reality of growing old and the distance between who I am now and who I used to be, but without finding myself immersed in the story and caring about the lives of the people. It was as if I stood in the shallows, admiring the beauty of the incoming tide without ever diving in.

I wasn’t surprised at the craftsmanship. ‘Empire Falls’ is one of my favourite books and Sully from ‘Nobody’s Fool’ has taken up permanent residence in my imagination, becoming someone that my wife and I refer to in conversations as if he were someone we’d once known and still think of. That Richard Russo is describing in those books a world more alien to me than some of the Science Fiction that I read and yet still brings them to life demonstrates just how good a storyteller he is.

So I’ve been pondering on why ‘Chances Are’ isn’t joining my list of books that I happily recommend to anyone who’ll listen.

I ought to be the target audience for this book. I’m the same age as the three men who, in their sixties, are meeting for the first time in many years in a cabin where they spent a memorable summer together in their youth. And a lot of it rings true to me. I nodded at the descriptions of the small discomforts and indignities of growing old, at the way in which we fail to update the mental image we have of someone we knew decades ago. Even though we accept that we’ve changed and grown older, we don’t apply this knowledge to them until confronted with the evidence and even then we filter what we see through the expectations of our memory, looking for what has stayed the same.

The book also has an interesting mystery which is displayed and resolved with consummate skill as Richard Russo moves effortlessly between the past and the present and overlays the conflicting memories of the participants.

So…?

I think it comes down to two things: firstly the way in which the mystery is delivered means we never get inside the head of Micky, who is the most interesting of the three men and secondly, one of the men whose head we do get inside is so blah that I don’t know why he’s there or why the other men were ever friends with him. It’s not that I dislike him. He’s not interesting enough to rouse dislike. He’s just someone who seems to rolled through his life, gradually becoming more conservative and more privileged and who seems almost free of the curse of introspection beyond occasional annoyance and some concern about whether other people like him.

If Micky had been at the centre of this book, I’d have dived right in but joining in the mild angst of a realtor from Las Vegas who is much more privileged and much more conservative than he realises, didn’t call to me. The most interesting thing about him was the woman he married and we never actually meet her.

‘Chances Are’ is still a well-above-average read, with some great prose, some interesting reflections and a good mystery in it. It just didn’t match my very high expectations.

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