"So Many Ways to Begin" by Jon McGregor

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Author Jon McGregor establishes the unique and elegant framework of identifying his short chapters as numbered pieces in a museum exhibit. In this way, he unfolds the story of David and Eleanor, a loving married couple who abide each other through each partner’s lifelong frustrating or horrific issues with their respective mothers. The title, in fact, refers to the far-too-strong influence of random chance in changing people’s lives, of opening and closing paths that will or would have been followed for a lifetime.

David and Eleanor foil each other over this mother-issue: David desperately searches for a biological mother whom he only learns of at age 22; Eleanor shuns her mother and would shun the memory of the continuous physical and emotional abuse she inflicted if only she could. Mr. McGregor maintains a clean and thoughtful, a simple and effective prose throughout. He constantly poses other possibilities – alternate events – when recounting an important juncture in someone’s life, emphasizing life’s sometimes cruel chances.

David becomes a museum curator basically as an act of will; as a child he found and documented an endless catalog of scraps and trinkets from craters in bombed-out Postwar England. When a museum is established locally he earns his apprentice’s position, and his career is born. He meets Eleanor – the attraction is immediate and mutual – on a business trip to a museum in Aberdeen, Scotland. David and Eleanor have difficulties like all married couples: she tends to severe depression while he tries to channel his frustration over the surprise of his background. They stay true to each other, however, and the end consists of a quiet, gratifying celebration of their enduring love.

This author has impressive skills drawing realistic characters, certainly, but his skills hardly stop there. He has given this fine book a structure in which our two protagonists each struggle in their own private fight, but somehow manage to do it in tandem. They do battle on opposite sides of the deepest of familial issues, but have enough capacity for each other to somehow make the journey worthwhile. And this is what I find I’m taking away: the universal nature of every person’s internal struggle, which is put aside long enough to make a beautiful life-affirming relationship work, and make life worth living for the beloved partner. An excellent, thought-provoking, if a little somber, read.

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