Lincoln, Mickey and Teddy are from working-class backgrounds and have been friends since they first met, as scholarship students, at a Connecticut college in the late 1960s. Although very different in personality, they were initially drawn together when, to help finance their college years, they worked as “hashers” in the sorority house dining hall of Minerva College. Whilst there they met Jacy, a fellow student from a wealthy background who became an integral part of their friendship group, and with whom each of them fell head over heels in love. Although she was engaged to someone from the same social class as her family, she seemed to prefer spending time with them.

On 1st December 1969, midway through their college years, they spent the evening glued to a small black and white television in the sorority house, anxiously watching the first draft lottery. That was the evening the fates of approximately 850,000 young men would be decided, dependent on when their date of birth, contained in one of 366 capsules, would be drawn. Everyone wanted as high a number as possible because that would mean a low risk of being called up to serve in Vietnam but a low number meant an early call-up … or making the decision to avoiding that fate by fleeing to Canada. Although two of the young men are lucky enough to get a high enough number to make call-up unlikely, the third gets a very low one so he and his friends know that, as soon as he graduates, he is certain to be called up.

When they finally graduate in 1971 the three friends and Jacy, who is shortly due to get married, decide to spend the Memorial Day long-weekend together on Martha’s Vineyard, at the holiday house owned by Lincoln’s mother. They all enjoy this farewell weekend despite the tension generated by the knowledge that one of the three men will shortly be called up and that Jacy’s wedding was imminent. However, following that weekend Jacy was never seen again and nor was the mystery of her disappearance ever solved. Had one of the three killed her because he was about to lose her to another man? Had a disagreeable neighbour, whose advances she’d rejected, killed her? Or had she hitch-hiked when she left the island and been picked up by a murderer?

Fast-forward to 2015: all three men are sixty-six years old and had last got together ten years earlier. Their disparate personalities are reflected in the many ways in which their lives have taken very different paths: one of them is a happily married family man who owns a commercial real estate business; another is a bachelor, a complex, introverted man who is a small-firm publisher and struggles with his mental health; and the third is rock musician who rides a motorbike and whose temper has a short fuse. As Lincoln is considering selling the holiday house he inherited when his mother died, the friends agree to meet there for a reunion. It very quickly becomes clear that in the intervening years each of them has remained obsessed with Jacy, and has puzzled over her disappearance. When they reflect on that long-lost weekend they realise that they need to solve the mystery of what happened to the girl none of them has ever stopped loving … but what secrets and suspicions does each man hold, and will whatever they gradually share make them question how well they truly know one another?

As the timeline moves between past and present and with alternating chapters using the narrative voices of Lincoln and Teddy, a picture gradually emerges of all their backgrounds, the various experiences which have influenced the ways in which they’ve lived their lives, shaped their decision making, forged their enduring friendship and made them the men they are today. Although Mickey’s narrative voice isn’t heard until two-thirds of the way through the book, his story is told through the reminiscences of Lincoln and Teddy, meaning that he is always as “present” in the developing story as they are. Each of the characters feels that the direction his life took after graduating was, in any ways, predicated by the result of the draft lottery and I found their various reflections on this to be very thought-provoking, partly because philosophising on life-choices, on pivotal moments and “roads not taken” during our lives is a tempting self-indulgence for most of us.

Almost immediately I felt completely caught up in the lives of these characters as they struggled to be open with one another, as they faced up to their regrets and remorse, their guilt and their shame, their reflections on how contented, or otherwise, they are with the decisions they have made and the people they have become, as well as with their hopes and expectations for the future. The mystery of what happened to Jacy was a central theme and I felt that the author managed the tension and suspense generated by this in a tightly-controlled way and although I found that the final resolution did require a degree of incredulity, this didn’t detract from my overall satisfaction with the outcome! In addition to creating such credible characters, the author conveyed an impressive sense of time and place, particularly with his evocations of the early 1970s, the influence of the Vietnam war, the music, the drug-culture and the massive social and political changes which were taking place at that time.

This is an elegantly written, powerful and memorable story, embracing many thought-provoking themes, particularly ones about masculinity, the nature of male friendships, the power of unrequited love, the complexities of family relationships, especially those between fathers and sons, an insidious working-class insecurity which harbours self-doubt, the reverberating effects of the choices people make at various times in their lives, reflections on fate versus freewill and the challenges of aging.

This is the first novel I’ve read by this author but, if Richard Russo’s acute observations of people and their milieu, the essential humanity he brings to his characters, his wry sense of humour and his ironic reflections on life are trademarks of his writing style, I’m sure that I’ll now enjoy working my way through his backlist!

One final reflection … when Mickey invites Lincoln to stay with him after the weekend he offers him the use of his pull-out sofa saying, “the dog won’t like it, but his affection and forgiveness can usually be bought with chocolate.” Would the author please tell Mickey to find another treat for his dog because chocolate can be dangerous, possibly even lethal, for dogs!

Linda Hepworth 5/5

Chances Are by Richard Russo
Allen & Unwin 9781911630364 hbk Nov 2019