I've got a Mary Engelbreit card on my bulletin board. Perhaps you've seen one like it. The caption reads: DON'T LOOK BACK. It shows a character who has passed a fork in the road and has chosen to follow the path that reads: your life instead of the one marked: no longer an option.
It happens to all of us. It happened to Charlene Darnell. Charlene was introduced last year in Curtiss Ann Matlock’s Lost Highways as the older sister of that novel’s heroine, Rainey Valentine. Driving Lessons is Charlene’s story.
A lot has happened in Valentine, Oklahoma in the year since Lost Highways. Rainey and Harry are married and live in Oklahoma City awaiting the birth of their first child. Her brother, Freddy is in a mental hospital after an altercation with an IRS agent, and his wife Helen is “turning to tacky.” Family patriarch Winston Valentine has taken in two female boarders (the men kept dying) and is embroiled in what can only be described as a war of flags with his neighbor. And if that wasn’t enough, Charlene’s husband, Joey, has left her for another woman.
Charlene is 46-years-old and for the last 21 years, she has been married to Joey Darnell. It’s part of who she is. But Joey has altered the script of their lives and has left her with three children - Larry Joe, Danny Joe and Jojo - a Chevy Suburban, a ranch house, a stack of bills and lingering self-doubt. We watch as Charlene plays out the range of emotions: denial, anger, shame, grief, guilt, hurt, and resignation. One day at a time.
Then, Charlene resolves to get her act together and literally takes it on the road. Charlene’s maternal instincts kick in. She knows if she is going keep it together for her children, she’s going to have to get her butt in high gear. So, Charlene gets a job and begins to drive for the first time in six years. Driving is no small feat for Charlene and is symbolic of her burgeoning independence from the men in her life. As her self-esteem rises, Charlene momentarily emerges from her roles as wife, mother and daughter to reveal the woman within.
Enter Mason MacCoy, co-owner of MacCoy’s Feed and Seed. Unbeknownst to Charlene, Mason has been in love with her for ten years. He can empathize with Charlene’s ordeal. He, too, has been betrayed by a spouse. Several years earlier, when Mason caught his wife in bed with another man, he picked up the interloper’s boot and hit him with it. The man inadvertently hit his head on the night stand and died and Mason spent time in prison.
Mason wants Charlene and is patient enough to wait for her. He courts the confused, hurt and reluctant Charlene. Mason is respectful and refreshingly adolescent in his overtures and their intensity.
Driving Lessons appealed to me on several different levels. It’s one of those books I will have to reread to grasp all the symbolism, imagery and homespun wisdom and humor that is classic Curtiss Ann Matlock. The story is chock full of great one-liners. When Rainey encourages her sister’s relationship with Mason, Charlene tells her: “If I can’t judge distance enough to get into my own driveway, I don’t think I’m going to be able to judge things like breaking up with one man and taking immediately up with another.”
Curtiss Ann Matlock has created another wealth of secondary characters who provide shading and support for the main characters. Even the town of Valentine, Oklahoma, is a character that exists in that low-tech Curtiss Ann Matlock way. I knew it was only a matter of time before that malfunctioning digital clock and thermometer had to go!
Driving Lessons is ultimately about a lot of things: family relationships, life’s rituals, community, bureaucracy, responsibility and love. It is also a subtle commentary on the so-called “sandwich generation,” the increasing number of largely female Baby Boomers who are responsible for caring for both children under the age of 18 and for their elderly parents.
But primarily it’s a story about self-love and renewal. Driving Lessons reminds us that we cannot be free to know and love someone until we understand and love ourselves. It is as much a story about Charlene’s relationship with herself as it is of that between Mason and Charlene. And perhaps that’s why it falls within that grey area between four and five hearts for me. It’s definitely worth a look.