by Peter Ferry
Peter Ferry’s Old Heart tells the story of an elderly man who escapes from his overly solicitous family and embarks on a journey across the globe. The intensity of his hope, desire, curiosity, and wanderlust appears undiminished as he reflects on loves lost and found. Even at the age of 85, it seems, all is not written in stone for this World War II veteran.
The first part of the novel covers what Tom has lived for up to the moment of his escape, which on the surface is nothing much to cheer about: a bad marriage, a lifelong commitment to a son with Down Syndrome, another son with serious financial troubles. He has been comfortable in his lakeside home in the far northern Chicago suburbs with his family and friends and pink Adirondack chairs, but now even this peace and quiet is under threat.
Tom’s failed marriage and other trying relationships are explored with both delicacy and bracing honesty. Ferry shows how those who seem harsh and unyielding, unlovable even, are nonetheless perfectly human. Known for his work in McSweeneys, the Chicago Quarterly Review, and the Chicago Tribune travel pages, Peter Ferry’s skillfulness as a writer shines forth in numerous small moments, each finely articulated, slowly revealing the truth of Tom’s life. When his wife is dying, Tom notes,
The battle had started long ago, when Julia had died. Julia turning her face to the wall, closing her eyes … It had been the act of turning away … as if to say in the plainest terms what they both knew: We have wasted our lives on each other. In that sense it was dismissive, impersonal, perhaps even cruel. In another it was intimate, an acknowledgment of the secret only the two of them shared completely, and for just a moment hope had formed and burst again in his heart like a soap bubble: ephemeral, glistening, and doomed.
Tom’s story is not only about this painful past. It turns out, for instance, that his sweet, funny afflicted son was one of the greatest joys in his life, and it is only after his death that Tom feels he has nothing to lose and begins his escape. His story is also about finding something never expected, in this case something buried in the lesser-known annals of World War II history. After Tom triumphantly regains control of his life and readers learn more about the part he and others played in underground operations in the Netherlands during the war, the sense of excitement and discovery mounts.
This momentum wanes, however, as the latter part of the novel details Tom’s resignation to an entirely new set of constraints. Yet it should surprise no one that seeking out an old flame in a foreign country entails a few stinging surprises and frustrations. While the narrative pace is stymied by various emotional and legal roadblocks, Ferry’s psychological portraits are always on point.
Old Heart mingles a bit of suspense with precise, unsparing reflection on personal histories against a backdrop of difficult events. In this the novel might be compared to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety or Colm Tóibín’s The Master, and it is nearly as well written. It should appeal to readers of any age and might make a good gift for a friend in doubt about the possibilities for renewal late in life.
Unbridled Books, June 2015
$16, paperback, 256 pages
—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton