Waltz in Swing Time
By Jill Caugherty
Growing up in a strict Utah farm family during the Depression, Irene Larsen copes with her family’s hardship by playing piano. Even when an unthinkable tragedy strikes, Irene clings to her dream of becoming a musician. When a neighbor's farm is foreclosed, Irene's brother marries the neighbor's daughter, who moves in with the Larsens and coaches Irene into winning leading roles in musicals. Clashing with her mother, who dismisses her ambition as a waste of time, Irene leaves home.
During a summer job at Zion National Park, she meets professional dancer Spike, a maverick who might be her ticket to a musical career. But does pursuing her dream justify its steep price?
Alternating between Irene’s ninetieth year in 2006 and her coming-of-age in the thirties, Waltz in Swing Time is a poignant tale of mother-daughter relationships, finding hope amidst loss, and forging an independent path.
"I never chose to spend my final days in a Disney Land for seniors."
Irene Stallings may well have one foot in the grave, but she was still humming. Did they not understand? It was just her body that was failing?
Irene could not deny that the Golden Manor was beautiful with its cathedral-style windows and potted plants. And of course, there was bridge night, craft days, and best of all there were people her own age for her to talk too! Sometimes there was even a pianist who played the old favourites. What more could she possibly want?
Irene would tell them if they let her. She wanted Harold. She wanted his stupid jokes and for him to take her in his arms like he used to. And she wanted to pirouette across a stage before an audience. She wanted the colour, and the music, and the jazz, and the dance.
Irene knows what they think. They think she is losing her mind. All those hours spent outside in the courtyard talking to herself does indeed look suspicious, but what they fail to notice is the tape player in her hand. Irene is not talking to herself. She is leaving a legacy for the only person who would understand.
While those around Irene get ready to celebrate her 90th birthday, Irene allows her mind to escape back to 1930s Utah, where it all began...
From a wheat farm in the community of Paradise, Utah, to the blessed relief of a longed-for sleep, Waltz in Swing Time by Jill Caugherty is the utterly enthralling story of one woman who dared to risk it all and follow her heart.
The strong foreshadowing at the opening of this novel hints this tale will be an especially tragic one. Death is a foregone conclusion when a book is set in a home for the elderly, but the enormous dragon in the room which no one dares to talk about is as loud as an empty space where a piano once stood. I realised from the opening chapter that Waltz in Swing Time was going to demand every conceivable emotion from the reader. Still, nothing prepared me for how much of an emotional roller-coaster I had unwittingly found myself riding. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to scream at the injustice, and I had only just finished Chapter 4!
The story itself fluctuates between loud crescendos that then tapers into a sorrowful diminuendo. Of course, there are also moments in this book where the pianist abruptly stops playing, gets up, slams the piano lid down and storms out the room while the reader is left gasping and wondering what on earth just happened. This constant change in dynamics and time signatures is what made this book so very entertaining and immensely successful. The pages practically turn themselves — I was wholly bewitched with this symphony of colourful sights and sounds.
This book is told in the first person from Irene's point of view, but she does pay homage, as she dictates her memoirs into a microphone, to some of the people who were so very influential in her life. Wylie, for example, is only mentioned a dozen times. Still, he is instrumental in showing Irene that she could change her stars and could get an education, which bucks the convention of the ideas a woman perhaps aspired to in the 1930s. Irene also has first-hand knowledge of what her life will be like if she were to settle down and marry at a young age. Irene goes from admiring and being somewhat jealous of Mae, a schoolfriend and neighbour, to pitying her when Irene realises the sacrifice she had made by marrying. Mae is a fabulous singer, but she no longer has the time for such trifle enjoyments, and as the music leaves Mae, she loses that sparkle that once made her shine brighter than a star. Irene is determined not to let what happened to Mae, happen to her.
I adored Irene. She is the kind of heroine that you cannot help but love. She is spirited, courageous and funny. She is talented, quick and ambitious. Irene knows what she wants, and nothing will stop her — not her friends, not her parents, nor her boyfriend. I really admired Irene for her tenacious determination to become the woman she wants to become despite the considerable opposition that she faces. Her mother does not want her to leave the farm. She wants Irene to settle down and get married. Irene's father is somewhat bemused by his daughter's ambition but indulges her, as father's often do. It isn't until Irene meets Spike that she realises that this is the young man who she was holding out for, but even then, she does not give up on her dreams. I thought Caugherty's depiction of Irene was simply marvellous.
And then there was Spike! Oh, my goodness! Caugherty has gifted her readers with a larger-than-life character who is not only an incredible dancer and a notorious flirt, but he is also filled with ambition. Like Irene, he comes from nothing and yet that does not stop him from carving out the life he wants. I adored everything about his characterisation — he is so much fun and so full of life — one could not help but like him.
Caugherty explores the agonies of death and the consequences of it in this book in great detail. Indeed, at times, death leads the narrative. Irene's relationship with her mother deteriorates very rapidly because of a death, and they lose each other because of the subsequent grief that her mother drowns in. The person Mrs Laresen becomes is a shadow of who she really is. All that Mrs Laresen has left is cold bitterness and contempt, which is incredibly tragic in itself but more so when she has nowhere to tunnel that bitterness. Unfortunately, she ends up throwing it at Irene. As I read this book, I could not help but wonder if Mrs Laresen saw the image of her younger self in Irene, and she did not like to see the reminder. Irene is full of dreams and ambition, and her soul is filled with music. Mrs Laurence's dreams were buried six feet under.
The mother-daughter relationship is a theme that is explored in great lengths during this novel. There are moments when Irene realises she is watching history repeat itself — Irene's daughter, Deirdre, is very similar in personality to her grandmother. Deidre is a very controlling and opinionated woman who likes to take charge, be in control. Deidre is a complete contrast to her mother but also her own daughter, Amy. Like, Irene, Amy will live her life the way she thinks she should and not the way her mother wants her to. Ironically, while Deirdre is telling her grown-up daughter how to live her life, she conveniently forgets that she refused to live the life her father wanted her to live as well. Irene watches all of this with an almost amused detachment. She loves both her daughter and granddaughter, and she knows that it will somehow all work out for the best.
The historical detailing in this book has to be commended. Caugherty has captured the very essence of what life would have been like on a wheat farm in Utah during the Great Depression of the 1930s. To watch as everything you have worked for is destroyed must have been utterly soul-destroying. This was a terrible time in American history which Caugherty has depicted with great skill and diligence. Kudos, Ms Caugherty.
I was blown away by this debut novel. I could have read a thousand pages more, and I still would not have had enough of this story and these characters. I loved every word, every sentence, every syllable. I was captivated from the opening sentence to that final full stop. Waltz in Swing Time by Jill Caugherty is an absolute triumph.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Waltz in Swing Time
Jill Caugherty is the author of the novel WALTZ IN SWING TIME, set in Depression-era Utah. Jill’s short stories have been published in 805Lit and Oyster River Pages, and her debut short story, “Real People,” was nominated for the 2019 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Jill holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University, an M.S. in Computer Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and an MBA with honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School. An award-winning marketing manager with over twenty-five years of experience in the high tech industry, she lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and daughter.