If nothing else, Frances Itani’s latest novel shows the utter importance of community. Such a message is ironically timely, given the current need for physical distancing during a global pandemic. But Itani’s book is much more than this. The novel is so beautifully written and so full of wisdom that it’s likely readers will want to return to it numerous times.
Death is what unites the characters in The Company We Keep. Brought together by a hand-printed notice on a grocery-store bulletin board, a small group of strangers meets in the back of Cassie’s Café to talk about their grief. Cassie has given the space to her friend Hazzley, whose husband, Lew, died three years earlier. Itani introduces the characters in successive chapters, then brings them together at the first meeting, where they begin to reveal themselves.
Gwen’s life has been sad: married to a bully, she is nagged into retiring from a job she loves. When her husband dies shortly after her retirement, Gwen finds herself alone, her grown-up sons having fled as soon as they could. To fill some time, Gwen takes on the task of caring for a parrot named Rico. As they slowly form a bond, Gwen ponders her marriage and the apparent loss of herself. Chiyo, a fitness instructor, has cared for her mother through months of dying and has mixed feelings about her parent. Tom, an antiques dealer and poet, mourns the loss of his wife. Addie, a health administrator, is grieving the loss of her best friend. And Hallam, a Syrian refugee, is rocked by the death of his wife and destruction of his home country.
Each character has a different experience and reaction to loss. Essentially, each character is trying, in his or her own way, to accomplish what Hazzley sees as her goal in emptying some of the rooms of her house: “[W]hat she was really trying to do was create a life – her life, the story of herself as she wanted to be right now.” Itani deftly illustrates the varied complexity of human relationships; the loss of a spouse or mother or best friend changes a person and demands new ways of being or continuing in life.
Using a third-person narrator capable of assessing all the characters in the novel with clarity and precision, Itani weaves the lives of her cast together as they become friends and over time reveal painful secrets. Perhaps because they have all felt heartache, they are careful with the feelings of others. This may also result from the fact that they are a self-selected group, suffering in similar situations and wishing to change them through words. Itani’s characters are essentially decent and kind; they get frustrated with themselves and others, but a generosity of spirit and a gentle understanding infuse their interactions. They can cry and laugh together. They can find hope and even love.
The Company We Keep shows people at some of the lowest moments of their lives and understands how such times make connection with others profoundly meaningful. And in a brilliant move, there’s no chat about closure.