‘If Not For This’: A marriage strains under the weight of MS
Pete Fromm’s new novel, “If Not For This,” is the story of a mad-for-the-outdoors married couple who must come to terms with a different life when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Fromm reads Monday, Sept. 29, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “If Not For This” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 29, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com); and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2, at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge, free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com).
Pete Fromm’s new novel is a story told in retrospect about a couple of young river runners who meet, fall in love, marry and expect to live happily ever after. Ah, but then life intrudes.
Right up front, “If Not For This” (Red Hen Press, 240 pp., $15.95) lets you know that things are going to get complicated. The title of this novel, for instance, is a line from the Dave Matthews love song, “Two Step” — and in the book’s epigraph, more of Matthews’ poignant lyrics foreshadow the story line.
The prologue is voiced by Maddy, the wife, who describes herself as a hag in a wheelchair, being pushed along by her husband who is “the original idea for Michelangelo’s David.” When strangers gawk and stare at this unlikely couple, she snipes at them, “This is nothing. You should see us in bed.”
And then Fromm launches into Chapter 1, yanking the readers back decades earlier to the cute-meet of Maddy and Dalt, and the “lurch and stagger” of Maddy’s heart when she realizes that she has met the man of her dreams.
Maddy narrates the bulk of this story. In the beginning, both of them are healthy. She and Dalt plan a hippie wedding on the banks of a Wyoming river, and their fondest ambition is to put down roots there for the rest of their days. But too soon they lose the lease on their little cottage — it’s slated for upscale development — and they realize they are getting priced out of the area and will have to come up with a new plan.
They move to Oregon and try operating their own river-running business. The enterprise involves nonstop work on both of their parts, but it has promise — until Maddy is hit with a double whammy. She is pregnant. And she is diagnosed with MS.
Again, Dalt and Maddy need to revise their plans. They give up the rafting business and Dalt finds work as a carpenter — it had been his dad’s career, and a land-tethered trade Dalt had sworn never to follow.
Maddy, increasingly, finds her mobility and her world shrinking. But as Dalt chides his wife during one of her blue moments, “it doesn’t make you less. Good god. It makes you more.”
And it’s true: Maddy takes nothing for granted — she lives fiercely in the moment, while Dalt anticipates obstacles and puts his carpentry skills to work, modifying their house for his wife’s comfort.
Somehow, they make it work. They have two children together, a boy and a girl, whom they raise to adulthood. They laugh and bicker and stay in love.
This is a slim novel, and Fromm could have used more space to give readers a better look into the day-to-day dealings of an MS patient. As it is, these pages tend to be freighted with the confrontations that take place whenever Dalt and Maddy have to recalibrate their expectations based on Maddy’s increasingly compromised abilities.
Even so, there is wisdom and tenacity and sass in this book. There is such candor and such sadness. There is so much love.
Sooner or later, the reader will realize that the story of Dalt and Maddy has a great deal in common with his or her own life — “this hideously wonderful, instructionless game, sweating over every mistake and misstep, what it’s cost….”
Don’t be abashed if this book turns into a 10-hanky read. Given the heroes of “If Not For This,” it’s completely understandable if you start out crying a river over them and end up shedding tears, too, for the glory and the tragedy of the human condition.