WITH ROBERT ALTMAN'S The Player on my mind lately, I have been reading fiction with one eye focused on the task at hand and the other on how to best summarize the premise to a Tinseltown producer. Evening, Susan Minot's new novel, is easy: a female version of The Remains of the Day, set mostly in bucolic Maine and with no looming world war as subplot.
Where Kazuo Ishiguro's butler, Mr. Stevens, recalls his unconsummated affections for the housekeeper of Darlington Hall over the course of a car trip, Minot sets Evening around the memories of a woman on her deathbed. Ann Lord is a widow in her mid-60s with four children from several marriages and a large, drafty house in Cambridge, Mass. Cancer is slowly finishing her off; she lies in bed under round-the-clock care, drifting in and out of consciousness. Her life, in exceedingly lucid detail, plays like a jumble of film reels in her mind. One of them covers the summer of 1954 when Ann traveled to Three O'Clock Island off the coast of Maine, to attend the wedding of her friend Lila Wittenborn.
The setting is flawlessly Waspy: boat trips and midnight swims, cocktails and rolling lawns, opulent breakfasts on the terrace and conversations about wedding parties. One of the guests at the wedding is Harris Arden, a dashing young doctor from Chicago, who is studly and enigmatic and thinks nothing of plunging into freezing water to rescue maidens thrown overboard. Though she is not the maiden in question, Ann is momentarily enraptured by Harris. After a day or so of furtive glances and awkward encounters in corridors, the two make passionate love in the sail closet of the Wittenborns' estate. Ann has a bad case of l'amour fou but things get loopy when she finds out her knight in shining armor has a girlfriend who is due to arrive on the island the next morning.
The remainder of Ann Lord's life since that summer--three marriages, three divorces, four children--is a mere blip on the screen of her mind, an unchronological, impressionistic amalgam of thoughts. And so she lies on her deathbed, recalling every conceivable detail of a weekend with a man she would never see again, and condensing the four decades thereafter into afterthoughts. What a fool.
Susan Minot reads 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 10 at the Hungry Mind; 699-0587.