The Sweet By and By by Todd Johnson (William Morrow, 2009; Harper Paperbacks edition released March 30, 2010), 320 pages
Bernice and Margaret are in a nursing home, in eastern North Carolina. They both feel alone, until each discovers the other, right across the hall. Margaret usually makes a pest of herself to the staff; only LPN Lorraine can really communicate with her. Rhonda starts doing hair at the home on her day off from the salon so she can attain her dream of opening her own shop. Oh, and then there’s April, Lorraine’s daughter. She’s going to med school, to be a doctor.
The Sweet By and By wasn’t what I expected. I thought it was going to be about a group of friends who’d known each other for a long time and were now experiencing aging (and the nursing home) together. Instead, they meet at the nursing home, when (some of them, at least) are already old. And rather than being a Southern novel or a book about the South, this book struck me as simply a book set in the South. Sure, the characters speak in a bit of a drawl, and they eat fried food. But that was most of the South’s presence, it seemed. Yes, civil rights stuff (some of the characters are black, some are white) was mentioned a time or two. But it was mostly just in passing. I don’t know where I got these notions, though, so I guess that’s beside the point.
This is a book about aging and dying, about the aches and pains that come along with that — although it’s not graphic at all — and growing old gracefully. It’s also a picture of friendship across the years.
It’s certainly not plot-driven. I frequently enjoy character-driven novels, but this one didn’t do it for me.
I don’t always have to connect with a book’s protagonist to enjoy it. But with four (or five, depending on who you ask) main characters (chapters alternate between them), I felt like it was a problem that I couldn’t really relate to any of them. Sure, bits and pieces of different stories resonated, but there was at least one major aspect of each character that made me pull away.
Still, it is a sweet, touching story.
About the author
Todd Johnson received a Tony Award nomination as producer of The Color Purple on Broadway after a career as a teacher and studio singer. This is his debut novel. Johnson’s blog: blog.toddjohnsonbooks.com.
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I received this book from the publisher, as part of the TLC book tour.