Lydia teaches art at a small local college. She lives in a house in a suburb of Chicago with her ex-husband. And she hosts a party for her closest girlfriends every January. The party has evolved over the years and has become a highlight of the year, both anticipated and dreaded. But this year will be different. Lydia has some news to share. This will be their last Bleak Midwinter Bash.
The first half of the book spans the day of the party, as each woman ponders and prepares for the gathering. Celia, one of Lydia’s closest and most trusted friends, fights fatigue from working at the hospital library, a job she’s embarrassed by, but she and her husband are having financial difficulties. Elaine reluctantly plans to attend, but she doesn’t consider herself good company. She’s had a rough year – mourning the death of both her mother and her dog, and she’s still recovering from surgery. Maura worries about the catty bickering and inevitable gossip, often aimed at her. Jayne just wants a cigarette. And then there’s Norris, who hasn’t shown up in years but Lydia invites her anyway. Norris has successfully built that rare career as a bona fide artist. And Lydia’s other artist friends are naturally jealous and they think Norris is stuck up. Which, of course, she is.
The focus is primarily on Lydia, as she considers the guest list, the food she must prepare, and the threatening weather. But mostly, she contemplates how she will break the devastating news of her recent cancer diagnosis to her friends. Only a short time left, the doctor had gravely warned her. Lydia attempts to write letters to all her friends and say all the things she should have told them years ago. Why was she so distant? Why did she hold their friendships at arm’s length?
Faced with her mortality, Lydia wishes she had done so many things in her life differently. Regret and its consequences are a major theme throughout the novel. In one version of Lydia’s letter to her friends, she writes,
It seems to me, now that I’m contemplating regret, that there are two kinds – regret for things we did and wish we hadn’t and regret for things we didn’t do and wish we had. Had done. Would have done. Did do. I’m tangled in tenses already – it proves how slippery time can be. Or is. Which, I guess, is the point of regret. Was it Nabokov who said the prison of time is a spiral? Or did he say the spiral of time is a prison?”
The second half of the book deals with the aftermath of Lydia’s death and its impact on her friends. Norris surprisingly proves to be a main character; the kind you love to hate, and yet equally have sympathy for.
Lydia’s Party is author Margaret Hawkins’ third novel. It’s a story about friendship, life, and death. Recommended for fans of women’s fiction.