Reviewed by Sara Hodon
The Land of Last Chances
by Joan Cohen
She Writes Press
Paperback: 288 pages, August 13, 2019,ISBN-13: 978-1631526008
As the saying goes, “The only constant in life is change”, much to the chagrin of risk-averse individuals who relish their predictable daily routines. What many of these folks fail to realize is that change—no matter how small—brings growth. This is at the heart of Joan Cohen’s debut novel, Land of Last Chances.
Jeanne Bridgeton is a single woman in her forties whose career has been her primary focus. Single, childless, and in complete control of her professional trajectory, she is stunned to find herself pregnant at the advanced age of 48. This news, of course, shakes the solid foundation she’s built for herself and her life as she knows it. She is so shaken, in fact, she considers terminating the pregnancy—a moral decision that she wrestles with throughout most of the book.
Yet the news of her unexpected, unplanned pregnancy is not the only crisis Jeanne is facing. As her company’s head of marketing, Jeanne is the heir apparent to the CEO position. Jake, the company’s current CEO, an Iraqi War vet, is grappling with PTSD, which he has tried his best to keep in check. Jeanne and other members of upper management take it upon themselves to keep a close eye on Jake for everyone’s benefit. (Much later in the book, Jake’s sudden, shocking act of violence rocks the company and its employees, leaving permanent physical, emotional, and professional repercussions for everyone). Jeanne’s beloved senior golden retriever, Bricklin, is facing serious health problems. And finally, Jeanne learns her deceased father may have had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease; this means she could be carrying the gene and therefore pass it on to her unborn child. Does she want to be a burden in her later years? She handles each crisis largely on her own, with a small extended support system. Jeanne is not the type of woman to ask for help in any type of emergency. The fact that she reaches out at all (to a neighbor for help with Bricklin, a casual acquaintance at Weight Watchers who becomes her closest friend, a small circle of co-workers, and an on-again, off-again love interest who may or may not be the father of her child.
Through it all, Jeanne is not a woman to fall apart, give in to her anxious thoughts, or let the considerable challenges she faces overwhelm her. She is a woman of action—practical, methodical, and determined to make thoughtful, informed decisions. This is simply how she’s lived her life, and until her pregnancy news, it’s worked for her. But she soon learns there’s something to be said for spontaneity and living for the moment, and there are some things simply out of our control, like mental and physical illness (both of which play major roles in key scenes). Jeanne’s self-sufficiency appears to stem from her upbringing, living with a mother who was not openly affectionate or long on motherly wisdom, yet she was secretly sentimental (a fact Jeanne sadly learns well after her mother’s death) and subtly equipped her daughter with the skills she’d need to live as an independent woman. Cohen writes: “Jeanne carried her family within: her mother in her memories, her father in her imagination, her child…her child was no more than a transient, a reverse silhouette on a sonogram. Thank God she had Bricklin, even if she only had him for this Christmas. He was her family.” Later, Cohen writes, “She wished she could stop at her mother’s house in Newton, but of course, no one was there. A sense of desolation settled like a weight on her chest.” It can be difficult for a pregnant woman to grasp the fact that her unborn child is a living, breathing human—in the maze of doctor’s appointments, eating well, self-care, and getting ready for baby, it’s almost easy to forget the small being itself—but once the child arrives, the full weight of reality and responsibility comes with it. So Jeanne is not alone when she views her pregnancy as a concept, not a child, until she is several months along.
Jeanne is by far the most fully-developed character, yet some of her inner thoughts and feelings remain a mystery throughout the book. She is at times cold and unfeeling (particularly as she contemplates terminating her pregnancy upon learning of the early-onset Alzheimer’s gene), businesslike and professional, and, finally, comfortable with the changes taking place in her life. It’s almost as though she doesn’t want to be alone with her thoughts or delve too deeply into worst-case scenarios. Her natural inclination is to fix the problem, whatever it is. She is by all accounts a modern-day professional woman who finds herself struggling with the concept of “work/life balance” in a way she’d never considered before. Although Jeanne has trouble with the label of “mother”, it could be said she has actually nurtured two “babies” prior to her actual physical child—her career, and of course, her beloved dog. When both of her “children” face crises of their own, Jeanne steps in to offer the best solutions possible.
It is fascinating to watch Jeanne’s character transformation. Early in the novel, she is businesslike, professional, and analytical. She wishes to get things done quickly so she can get back to work. But slowly, cracks in that façade emerge, and she learns human emotions are not business transactions or “deals” to be made. This point is illustrated best when her love interest, Vince, presents her with a stack of legal paperwork relevant to his involvement in the baby’s life. After recently undergoing genetic testing to determine the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s, Jeanne’s nerves are raw, on the surface, and she resents both Vince’s proposition and the way he presents it. Likewise, her closest friend Maggie suffers her own health scare, and fortunately Jeanne is able to help her.
Jeanne is by no means perfect (or even likable at times), but Cohen puts her on a real journey. No one is perfect, and many of us are not likable at times. Jeanne Bridgeton is just a character in a novel, but she is a great example of what happens when we give in to the changes taking place in our lives. No matter how much control we wish to maintain over our own bodies, families, or careers, the Plan often doesn’t go as planned. New experiences, new people, perhaps a new idea of what happiness or family looks like…this is when real living begins. Cohen does an admirable job of giving readers a real woman with real struggles who gives in to change and comes out better for it.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications.