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Take a chance on ‘Chances Are…’

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One of the realities of life is that as we grow older, it becomes more and more difficult to hold onto all of the pieces of our pasts. Parts of our lives that were earth-shattering at the time prove to not be nearly so important or even memorable. Our best friends at 20 are too rarely our best friends at 60 – and even if they are, all of us are so very different.

Time changes us all.

Few contemporary novelists capture that inevitability quite like Richard Russo. He has an incredible gift for treating the passage of time with honesty while also finding ways to accentuate the positives that come with age. His grasp of how relationships ebb and flow with time and place is largely unparalleled.

His latest is “Chances Are…” (Knopf, $26.95), a story of three men, former college roommates now in their mid-sixties, returning to the summer cottage where the paradigm of their relationship had forever changed one fateful decades-ago night. This might be the last time they’re ever together like this, so the question is – what is left to be said?

Russo’s many strengths come together here in one thoughtful and extremely readable package. His quietly elegant prose is perfect for rendering forth the emotional dynamic of the aging man; his knack for bringing small towns to life and his love of the coast come into play as well. And through it all, the steady tick-tock of time passing – a sound that is far less frightening when Russo controls the clock.

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey have known each other for over 40 years. They met as students at Minerva College, a small private liberal arts school in Connecticut; the three of them worked in the kitchen at one of the school’s sorority houses. They called themselves the Three Musketeers.

Their time at Minerva overlapped with perhaps the most tumultuous time ever to be on an American college campus: the late 1960s. The specter of Vietnam loomed over every part of their lives … and would ultimately cause considerable difficulties for them all.

In 2015, the trip reunites for what might be the last time. Lincoln is in commercial real estate in Las Vegas. Teddy runs a small press in Syracuse. And Mickey is living in Cape Cod, still living the rock and roll dream. They come together at Lincoln’s summer cottage on Martha’s Vineyard, ostensibly for one last good-bye to the place before Lincoln sells it.

But they also come together to remember … and to mourn. It was here, over four decades before, Memorial Day 1971, that something happened. Something that haunts all three of them to this very day. A mystery that they may never solve – that may in fact be unsolvable – and the shadows of a fading past.

The three of them still love each other, but time waits for no one. They are well into their sixties and dealing with the realities of age. They remember their former selves with fondness, but also with regrets – some spoken, others secret. Their friendship remains intact but changed. Each man harbors his own understanding of the past, his own memories.

There’s a delicacy to Richard Russo’s work that juxtaposes nicely with the rougher edges of some of his characters. That touch allows him to craft relationship dynamics that show every moment of their intended age; no one does long-term connections like Russo. Friends, enemies or somewhere in between, he exquisitely captures what it means to have a history.

“Chances Are …” offers up the standard Russo blend of humor and pathos, yes. But there’s also a darker undercurrent than we usually get from him. That’s not to say that his work is always sunshine and roses – far from it – but this is just a little more shadowy. There’s a sadness to the story’s central mystery, yes, but also a vaguely sinister vibe. And the constant shifting of perspectives – we mostly move between Lincoln and Teddy, with the occasional visit with Mickey – introduces an unexpected, but welcome element of suspense.

Connecting the past and present in a way that feels genuine and earned takes a narrative deftness possessed by precious few writers. Russo does it with seeming effortlessness, building full, rich connections with a scant handful of sentences before simply drawing us into the community that he has created.

“Chances Are …” is one more wonderful book from a man responsible for a lot of them. It’s a tidal read – as gentle and steady as it is strong and inexorable. I read it in a day; it’s a cliché to say, “I didn’t want to put it down,” but … I didn’t. Tough to think of a better recommendation, really.

Take a chance. You won’t regret it.

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