Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tomorrow will be better?

Betty Smith is one of my favorite authors. She is on my short "life list" of favorite female authors, about whom I have this not-very-vague idea that if I can't write a book as well as one of these women, I will not write a book at all. (So far, I haven't written any books.)

Betty Smith's most well-known book, is, of course, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is a very good book and one that I think every girl should read sooner or later. I think, however, that Joy Comes in the Morning is my personal favorite, and that one would definitely appear on a "must read" list from me, except that I'd save that one for maturer young ladies. Maggie-Now is also an excellent story, and one that I have read many times.

In fact, I've read all three of those over and over again. They are wonderful, poignant stories about real people living real lives and making the most of small, daily joys. Francie loves the brown bowl full of flowers or berries at the library. Maggie-Now serves warm rye bread and fresh sweet butter for dessert because it's so good. Annie loves the cheap clock she buys for her room, because its loud ticking feels so friendly. I don't know any writer who is better than Betty Smith at making the little things seem special.

But Betty Smith wrote a fourth book, Tomorrow Will Be Better. I only read that book once, a very long time ago. I remember that I did not like it. The ending, to me, was tragic. In short, the marriage fails. It was never a great love-match in the first place--only an escape from an unhappy home life for both partners--but I still hated the ending. I think I must have read it even before I married myself (18 years ago), and so I thought perhaps it was time to reread this book, which is, after all, still written by one of the finest authors I've read. After all these years, the only thing I could remember was what I shared so far--I didn't like the book because the marriage failed.

So I took this book with me on my vacation, and read it again. I thought I might have a different perspective after so much time, though I'm just as far from approving divorce as I ever was. Every single character in the book has a hopeful side--the side that can't help feeling "tomorrow will be better," even though it never seems to be. As the parents get older, their hopes are shifted to their children, hoping that for them, perhaps, "tomorrow will be better." I do appreciate the resilience of the human spirit that Betty Smith has written about--that optimism that puts mistakes behind and looks forward with new hopes and new plans.

I'm still sad that the marriage failed. I could imagine a happier ending. But I can't help knowing that what Betty Smith has written here is reality for so many people. When tragedy strikes a home, sometimes even a strong marriage is broken in the aftermath. The fragile marriage in the book hardly stood a chance. And even in the midst of the mourning, the young husband and the young wife begin to plan a future for themselves, but a future in which the other person is not there. There is no real animosity between them, either, and one can imagine that if the tragedy (the stillbirth of their baby) had not taken place, they might have stayed together indefinitely, raising their daughter in an unhappy home, as they were raised themselves.

Betty Smith is not being ironic about the title--"Tomorrow Will Be Better." She really means it. All her other books are about survival in the midst of difficulty, and not just survival, either, but even thriving in spite of adversity. However, this book just doesn't satisfy me. I can't see any particular reason that "tomorrow will be better" for Margy or Frankie. They are simply possessed of human optimism and do not admit defeat in spite of failure. They choose to live. They look at the future. But there is nothing concrete in which they place their faith, and so their optimism seems ill-placed to me. Tomorrow will not be better just because we hope it will be.

And so, this book remains my least favorite of Betty Smith's titles. These are the only four I know. I will probably reread my favorite three many times again in the coming years, but I may let another 18 years elapse before I read Tomorrow Will Be Better again.


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