He meant us. Mike believed in us, I saw then – saw it somehow for the first time. Believed and loved without complexity or qualification, and this quality must have been true of him all their lives together, Neil’s and Tilda’s with him…
In the tree-nestled Northern California town of Mira Flores, writer Rachel (“an aging typist with an unprofitable hobby”) and her Scottish husband Neil prepare dinner for a familiar “crew” of guests – among them Neil’s best friend, the burly, handsome Mike Spender, an irrepressible hedonist – and Mike’s wife, the troubling Tilda Krall, a hard-bitten figure who carries her dark unknowability like an accusation.
Make It Stay, a slender, evocative novel, describes the arc of friendship between Mike and Neil, a deep and unequivocal bond that is sometimes proves difficult for their families to understand. It also tells the love story of each man with his wife, and how their friendship effects that relationship. Joan Frank’s reflective, character driven novel provides much food for thought about adult relationships and how they permeate our lives. Here are two men who appear as different as can be – larger-than-life Mike, with a huge appetite for life, and Neil, a Scottish attorney who seems conventional and emotionally curtailed – yet who develop a strong friendship which outlasts time and circumstance.
Although Make It Stay is definitely a study of characters and relationships, it is also definitive of time and place. Set in northern California (a topography I’m very attracted to) Frank shows off her descriptive chops with paragraphs like this:
It was one of those afternoons the townspeople cherish about autumns here: sky a deep, aching blue, motes of gold in the air…Leaves had begun to flush crimson, wine, umber; days filled with a warm-sugar smell. Around and through lazed scents of cola, hot pretzels, smoke from leaf fires (still legal), cut-grass, geraniums. Tips of trees barely stirred. In the hills the vines had given up their precious roe and turned to ridge upon brimming ridge of tarnished gold. Gardens hung heavy with their last great loads, tomatoes, eggplant, green peppers. Light felt spun, the color of whipped honey, hovering over the stillness. The whole town, the county, the whole world seemed briefly suspended inside one of those globe spheres – except instead of crystal, the sphere might be one big fire opal.
There is a bittersweet, autumnal scent to this entire novel, in which events don’t seem to happen so much as people experience them. Reading Make It Stay reminded me of looking at a deeply detailed series of paintings, where experience, personality, and environment are reproduced in gorgeous and vivid hues. As the novel recounts the “glory days” of the friendship between the two couples, time and circumstance have its way with them and we come face to face with the inevitable changes that aging brings and the difficulty of “making it stay.”
Make It Stay is Joan Frank’s 5th work of fiction. She is the recipient of many writing awards and grants, and has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University. She lives in Northern California.