Tuesday, August 13, 2019


“Chances Are,” Richard Russo’s new novel, tells the stories of four people who meet in the late-’60s as students at Minerva, a Connecticut private college. 

Three of them — Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey — are scholarship boys. The fourth — dark-haired, charismatic, braless Jacy — has wealthy parents. She lives in the sorority where the three guys work as hashers, serving and clearing up after meals. They all fall in love with Jacy. She’s engaged, so there seems no immediate chance for them. Yet, she never speaks of her fiance, so who knows — especially when one night she gives each of them in turn a serious impassioned kiss.

The novel begins 44 years later, when Lincoln arrives on Martha’s Vineyard to sell the house he inherited from his mother. He’s invited Teddy and Mickey to join him on a last convivial weekend together, recalling a similar event in 1971, when they were newly graduated from Minerva and Jacy was with them.

Since then they had gone their separate ways. Lincoln became a commercial real estate broker in Las Vegas. Teddy, often subject to mood disorders, is an editor and small-time publisher in upstate New York. Staying true to his vocation, Mickey’s a rock ‘n’ roll guitarist with his own band on Cape Cod.

As for Jacy, she’s gone. She left that long-ago weekend while the guys were still sleeping, leaving a note saying she couldn’t bear goodbyes. She was never seen again. The police got involved but found nothing. 

As he arrives on the island, Teddy thinks he spots her waiting on the dock. He’s wrong. But inevitably she is on all their minds. Lincoln decides to noodle around to look for leads. It becomes a bit of a mission for him, and for Teddy, too. Eventually the truth is revealed — not just the truth about what happened to her after she left the Vineyard house, but about her life before Minerva.

The lives of Lincoln, Teddy and eventually Mickey are also revealed. Lincoln got lucky. He married one of Jacy’s sorority sisters, they had good careers and six kids, and now have grandchildren. Teddy’s life has been emotionally rockier. He’s struggled to keep on keel. Mickey has had his problems, too.

As readers discover, this pattern is not new. It is dramatized soon after they reach Minerva, when they watch the first Vietnam draft lottery. Mickey’s birthday is drawn ninth. He’s going to get drafted. Teddy’s and Lincoln’s dates came safely later. 

That’s chance. And as this title of the novel forewarns and its tale illustrates, chance plays a big part in life. The four central characters (and bit players also) are subject to accidents. They get lucky breaks and bad breaks plus inheritances of different sorts.  

“Kind of makes you wonder,” reflects Lincoln. “If there’s such as thing as do-overs, if we all had a bunch of chances at life, would they all be different?”

He’s 66 — a time of life when thoughts about one’s earlier years invariably occur. Author Richard Russo is an example. His recent books have included a memoir “Elsewhere” focusing on his mother’s life as well as his own, and “Trajectory,” a collection of stories about middle-age people, exploring the personal history that has shaped their lives. 

In “Chances Are,” the contemplative Teddy has thought about chance and decided that if you look backward on your life, “Character was destiny … Mickey’s number on the lottery would always be 9, Teddy’s always 322. Why? Because … well, that’s just how the story went.” But he thinks it better to look forward. Then, he decides, even if free will is an illusion, it’s necessary to give life meaning. “Sometimes it did feel like the fix was in, but what if it was only partial?” His own life was shaped by terrible early experiences, yet he finds hope.

Richard Russo won early acclaim for his portrayal of working-class lives in the Northeastern mill towns he knew from his childhood in upstate New York. His later works have featured bourgeois characters, but he writes about their lives and anxieties — especially those of men — with equal skill. Not that the working class have entirely disappeared from his work. In “Chances Are,” Mickey’s dad is a shining example.  

Jacy is a less successful character: so conventionally “dramatic” that unlike her male friends she is a literary trope rather than a fully realized character, and this saps some credibility from their fascination with her. 

Nonetheless, Richard Russo’s lucidity and intelligence make this an enticing novel, unputdownable toward the end when the truth about Jacy is finally revealed.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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By Richard Russo

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 464 pages

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