Saturday, May 11, 2024

REVIEW: I Cheerfully Refuse by Leif Enger



Set in a not-too-distant America, I Cheerfully Refuse is the tale of Rainy, an aspiring musician setting sail on Lake Superior in search of his departed, deeply beloved, bookselling wife. An endearing bear of an Orphean narrator, he seeks refuge in the harbors, fogs, and remote islands of the inland sea. After encountering lunatic storms and rising corpses from the warming depths, he eventually lands to find an increasingly desperate and illiterate people, a malignant billionaire ruling class, a crumbled infrastructure, and a lawless society. As his guileless nature begins to make an inadvertent rebel of him, Rainy’s private quest for the love of his life grows into something wider and wilder, sweeping up friends and foes alike in his wake.

Format 336 pages, Hardcover
Published April 2, 2024 by Grove Press
ISBN 9780802162939 (ISBN10: 0802162932)
Genre Literary Fiction

My Thoughts

This "not so distant" world is ruled by the wealthiest. The working society who struggles to eke out an existence lives on the periphery of the wealthiest individuals who fly in on helicopters to enjoy their waterfront living.
You might see their helos whacking past on long weekends. Sometimes they fly low on the ground. I used to wave but they never waved back.
Against this dark backdrop of inequality, hard-scrabble life, crumbling society, and an earth clinging tenuously to survival, we meet Rainy as he reminisces about his life with Lark and what led to him sailing around Lake Superior in search of her.
The world was so old and exhausted that many now saw it as a dying great-grand on a surgical table, body decaying from use and neglect, mind fading down to a glow.
Rainy (short for Rainier) is a big, gentle bear of a man who is totally devoted to his wife and their life together. As Lark said of him...
"You're a man who stops and listens. If that's not the definition of friendship, it's close enough for now."
There's such a sweetness and gentleness between Rainy and Lark. This is a romance for the ages against a dark landscape.
I felt my lungs relax. I liked Labrino, wanted him to be all right. But I also really wanted him to go home, and be all right at home.

Lark said, "Sometimes your friends choose you."

She took my hand. Her eyes flared wide then got stealthy, and at the bridge of her nose appeared two upward indents like dashes made by a pencil. It was irresistible, my favorite expression-- of all her looks it built the most suspense, and it was just for me.

Rainy meets Lark after basically stalking her when she was a librarian. Thanks to Lark, Rainy discovers the joy of books and the worlds to be found within them.

Did I understand it? Not by half, but when it thunders you know your chest is shaking. These thieves and lovers and wandering poets-- what big lives they had! I began watching everyone I met for secret greatness.

And Rainy falls almost instantly in love with Lark just by her voice, her kindness, the way she can intuitively tell what a person needs and make the perfect book recommendation for them at that moment in their life. And once he sees her, then he's all done for...

Chancing a single casual glance at her green eyes, I got an impression of curiosity and wit and maybe a little mockery zipping around back there like fireflies.

His love for her grows through the years, as does their respect and care of one another.

I liked her rogue bookshop, her smoky voice. Her birthmark like war paint.

Rainy is friends with a local bar owner (where Rainy often plays bass guitar) known simply as Labrino, a rather melancholy guy.
Still, it was good he knocked at all. There were times Labrino was so melancholy he couldn't bring himself to raise his knuckles, and then he might stand motionless on the back step until one of us noticed he was there.
But he is also a man of grit and endurance.
I opened my mouth, then remembered a few things about my friend. He had a grown son living in a tent on top of a landfill in Seattle. A daughter he'd not heard from in two years. His wife had enough of him long ago, and he was blind in one eye from when he tried to help a man crouched by the road and got beaten unconscious for his trouble. That Labrino was even operative-- that he ran a decent tavern and hired live music and employed two bartenders and a cook who made good soup-- testified to his grit.
And thanks to Labrino, we have one of my favorite scenes from the book when Lark arrives home to find her husband soothingly playing guitar for Labrino.
He grinned-- a wide grin, at which Lark danced back into the kitchen and held out her hand. Labrino took it and got up and followed her lead. She whisked him about, I kept playing, and Labrino kept losing the steps and then finding them again-- it was good to see him prance around like a man revived. By the time I brought the tune to a close Labrino was out of breath and scarcely noticed as Lark snagged his coat and lay it over his shoulders. With genuine warmth she thanked him for coming and suggested dinner next week, then he was out the door and turning back to smile as he went.
Lark is so empathetic, so intuitive and kind-hearted, and she knows just how to give someone what they need in that moment.

And then Lark brings home a stray by the name of Kellan who she's taken on as a room boarder. Lark describes him as "Enigmatic. Obscure."
"In subsequent days he'll win renown, but he won't really like it." I smiled in the dark-- Lark had a habit, when very tired, of predicting upshots in the lives of people just met. She never let them hear these yet-to-comes, these subsequents, which were purely for herself and sometimes me.
Rainy describes Kellan as having a "kid brother quality" and "plucky doomed optimism" that made you want "to take care of him". And Kellan needs someone to take care of him. He is running from his past and needs the soft landing that Rainy and Lark offer him for a time.

The idyllic life that Rainy and Lark have built together is shattered, leaving Rainy living on the shifting winds of Lake Superior aboard the boat Flower.
I began to feel quite sentimental toward Flower. What a stout small craft she was. I was not much of a sailor nor navigator yet she'd protected me in all conditions.
The author is a skilled wordsmith and this story is well-crafted prose, creating a world that is equal amounts beauty and tragedy. Nature and nature's beauty is a running theme, as well as her indiscriminate wrath. I noted how even many of the character's names have the earthy feel of nature to them (i.e. Rainier/Rainy, Lark, Sol/Sun, Thorn, Beezie, and even the boat's name Flower), as well as references to beekeeping and gardening, the weather, and more.

But there is also a darkness in this dying world where you can find both the best and the worst of humanity.
What scares me is the notion we are all one rotten moment, one crushed hope or hollow stomach from stuffing someone blameless in a cage.

Vocabulary (I love when a book exposes me to glorious new words!)

frousting: stale, stuffy atmosphere
manky: inferior, worthless, dirty or unpleasant
propitiation: atonement, or appeasing a god or spirit
munificient: larger or more generous than is usual or necessary
verdigris: a patina formed on copper or brass
fusty: stale, damp, or old-fashioned in attitude

Buy Now:

See the publisher's website Grove Atlantic for purchase options.

My final word: This book is "simple" in the very best meaning of the word. It's stripped down to the basics and helps you find joy in the simple things. It's optimistic and hopeful even amid tragedy, and... atmospheric. You get the sense that Rainy and Lark were destined; their love was written in the stars.
Yet we were also, as Lark liked to whisper in the dark, quixotes, by which she meant not always sensible. Open to the wondrous. Curious in the manner of those lucky so far.
And you learn through their story that sometimes things have to get really dark for you to see the light. It's just a beautiful story. Let Rainy take your hand and lead you to the light.

Brief violence, unsettling situations

Cover: A
Writing Style: A
Characters:  A
Storyline/Plot: A
Interest/Uniqueness: A+

My Rating:

The Cerebral Girl is a middle-aged blogger just digging her way out from under a mountain of books in the deep south of Florida.

I read this as part of the April 2024 selection for the Barnes & Noble Book Club.

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