In the opening pages of Our Lady of the Prairie the author throws a whole lot at you – and it escalates from there. Phillipa Maakestad is due to drift into contented late-middle age. She has a career as a professor teaching musical theatre, a stable marriage and her daughter has found equilibrium – and a fiancé – after years of psychiatric problems. Then Phillipa starts an affair, leaves her husband and throws everything into disarray.
What follows is a romp through Midwestern life against the backdrop of the Bush/Kerry election. We see the effect on Phillipa’s husband, of course, and her evolving relationship with her daughter, Ginny, as well as getting a sense of the wider community – as she leaves her middle-class enclave and hangs out in bars and motels. In true musical theatre fashion, there are dramatic set pieces and reversals (invariably when she meets up with her lover, Lucius, you know they are not going to enjoy the uninterrupted intimacy they crave).
I liked the humour and the quirky characters, the odd vignettes (there’s a whole chapter where the narrator imagines/dreams a backstory for her difficult and enigmatic mother-in-law in Vichy France, which also happens to be Lucius’ area of academic expertise) and the willingness to answer questions you never dared to ask. (How do you cope if you have a heavy period while swathed in layers of white tulle on your wedding day? Read on and find out.)
But beneath the frenetic pace, there is a shrewd restraint. There are elements of the story that are left open, leaving the characters room to grow, and the reader space to reflect. Is Phillipa’s affair a reaction to her sudden liberation from caring for a seriously ill daughter, is it a perimenopause-induced rush of hypersexuality, or is it true love?
There is a sense of almost tipping into chaos in this book which mirrors Phillipa’s life, but the author does a great job of keeping the plates spinning while you hold your breath. This is an energetic, earthy, audacious novel asking us about the relationship between happiness, stability, and taking risks to pursue the life you want.
I received a copy of Our Lady of the Prairie from the publisher via Netgalley.
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