Glowingly reviewed everywhere from O, The Oprah Magazine and Good Housekeeping to sites across the blogosphere, Lydia’s Party sparks “a-ha” moments and heartfelt conversations about friendship, regrets, and ambitions. Margaret Hawkins’s earlier books, all published by small presses, have gained her a devoted following, but this gem of a novel will introduce her to the wider audience she deserves.
Lydia is hosting her “Bleak Midwinter Bash,” a late Christmas party that has become an annual tradition. Her guests—six friends who bonded twenty years ago over art, dogs, and their budding careers and romances—think they know everything about one another, but tonight Lydia prepares to shock them with a devastating announcement.
“Captivating . . . There is much to enjoy in Hawkins’s incisive observations . . . You’ll like these women, . . . [and] the story keeps you reading as it examines the gap between how we think we build our destinies . . . and how we actually build them.”
—0, The Oprah Magazine
“A tender and clear-eyed look at the tangles in women’s lives.”
—Good Housekeeping (A New Book Pick)
“This book feels like what lifelong friendships really are.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune (Also Picked as “A Fave of the Moment”)
“With shades of Mrs. Dalloway, much of the novel takes place in a day, as Lydia prepares for her annual winter party. . . . Hawkins’s novel is beautiful . . . and the plot takes a number of unexpected, hugely enjoyable turns. It is this kind of book: the kind one buys extra copies of to pass out to friends.”
—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“Impossible to put down. The characters are quirky, endearing, and relatable. . . . Lydia’s unrelenting examination of her own life forces the readers to reflect on their own choices and passions—and that is what makes this book a must-read.”
“Plot is one of the great strengths of the book, beyond the expert characterization of these women. The story takes several entirely unpredictable and yet satisfying turns. . . . [A] lovely life-affirming tale, making this meditation on mortality and friendship a pure delight for readers.”
“Hawkins’s smart, crackling novel is a snowy, midwestern Mrs. Dalloway, with Elizabeth Berg-ish charm and Hawkins’s own edgy, artfully particularized humor. . . . As Lydia and her circle pull together in her time of need, Hawkins considers the profound gift of friendship and the ways art and life converge to forge meaning and preserve truth and memories.”
“Sumptuous . . . a repast that’s alternately uncomfortable and soothing, weepy and jubilant, evocative and realistic. Party host and art teacher Lydia is having her annual dinner for her women friends. . . . In a quirky, impossibly magical and sweetly charming twist, Lydia helps guide them all to forgiveness.”
“Hawkins’s protagonists are well drawn and interesting.”
“Like Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party, a completely winning book about friendship, an elusive and almost never written about subject, which makes this a rare achievement.”
—Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce and Flyover Lives
“Lydia’s Party is a brilliant story, so perfectly told, the characters instantly recognizable and unforgettable, that they take up residence in one’s heart. It is destined to be a classic for this generation.”
—Jo-Ann Mapson, author of Solomon’s Oak, Finding Casey, and the forthcoming Owen’s Daughter
“Lydia’s Party is a literary celebration of dark secrets, enduring friendship, and the slow crawl of regret. A luminous reflection that will linger long after the last page, Margaret Hawkins’s latest novel will make you examine what and whom you hold most dear while you savor each perfect sentence.”
—Sally Koslow, author of The Widow Waltz
“With wit and insight Margaret Hawkins gives us a sharp, soulful look at love and regret, women’s friendship, art, aging, and ambition, and what it means to live a life. At once funny and moving, Lydia’s Party is a pure delight.”
—Rilla Askew, author of Fire in Beulah
“Hawkins’ third novel is a beautiful evocation of a death at midlife—at once elegant, melancholy and wise.
With shades of Mrs. Dalloway, much of the novel takes place in a day, as Lydia prepares for her annual winter party. The same group of women has been coming for years (except Norris, who makes barely plausible excuses), and Lydia worries over the usual: the food, the wine, the weather. But this will be her last party; she’s just been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and has but a few weeks to live. She struggles over a letter she plans to give each friend after dinner; a letter she writes and edits and is dissatisfied with because how can you explain all the disappointments of a lifetime in an uplifting farewell? She teaches art at a community college in the suburbs of Chicago, but really she wanted Norris’ life. Years ago, Lydia and Norris were colleagues, but thanks to Lydia’s mentorship (and, admittedly, Norris’ own icy determination), Norris has become a world-renowned painter while Lydia gave up long ago. And Lydia had men, too many of the wrong kind. And she had fears of making the wrong choices and so made too few important ones. And now she knows it is too late for anything; there is no more time to be the person she imagined. As she prepares for the party, her guests get ready as well: Elaine is bitter and alone and spreads acrimony like ruined pixie dust; still beautiful Maura loses herself in reveries of Roy, the married man she devoted her life to for a once-a-week “date”; Celia is married with a teenage son but is perpetually surprised that family life is so tedious. And then there is Norris, whom everybody hates but Lydia, and even Lydia hates her a little bit, too. Hawkins smartly continues the novel after the party, after Lydia’s death, after Norris begins a grand portrait series of the women, and the plot takes a number of unexpected, hugely enjoyable turns.
It is this kind of book: the kind one buys extra copies of to pass out to friends.”
—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
What inspired you to write Lydia’s Party?
I was thinking about the complications of close-knit groups—families and old friends—and how they relate to one another over time. It’s about love, of course, but not only. There are these other currents, privacy versus transparency, the challenges of individual expression versus being a good citizen. I started the book in January, so that’s where that came from. Really, surviving winter in Chicago, year after year, is a kind of psychological odyssey, reminding you at every turn that you’re going to die. Even in summer, you know what’s coming. Perversely, I suppose, I find that kind of invigorating.
Besides being a novelist, you are an art critic and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How do your “day jobs” inform your fiction?
Everything informs my fiction – doing the laundry, walking my dog. The art part is just what I’m interested in so the themes in the novel and the jobs are both an outgrowth of that. Of course, it’s also true that after writing a weekly column about art for years I’ve seen a lot of inadvertently humorous press releases and couldn’t help poking some fun. The teaching part is drawn somewhat from life—that’s how you think when you teach: how am I going to get and hold attention without being gratuitously theatrical? —but the details are from my imagination. I’ve never given a lecture on Ivan Albright. Specifically, in terms of this book, I’m intrigued by how artists relate to the world at large, how they think of themselves and justify the lives they (we) lead. I mean, is it really all right to lock yourself in a room and spend your days painting pictures or writing stories? I hope so, but sometimes I wonder.
Your descriptions of Norris’s paintings are incredibly vivid. Are they based on the work of a real-life painter or did they spring wholly from your imagination?
They pretty much spring from my imagination. The figure paintings are what I might like to paint if I could. But it’s like teaching; making up ideas for paintings is a lot easier than making actual paintings. I admire good figure painters, especially when they do something new with the genre. It takes a lot of guts to fly in the face of art history.
Did you ever have a List of Fears, as Lydia does?
Not exactly but when I was in seventh grade I had a teacher who started the year by asking us a battery of personal questions. We had to write down the answers and turn them in. One of the questions was: What are you afraid of? We were supposed to make a list. I don’t know if he was just indulging his curiosity or if it was school policy and this was some kind of “modern” technique to better understand children’s psyches but I remember loving that exercise. It was thrilling to me for some reason, to be invited to contemplate, then name my fears, and for years I went over the list in my mind, adding and subtracting items. I can’t remember much of it now but I do recall that the first item was big black dogs. Which is funny because my childhood dog had been medium-sized and black, and when I got to be an adult the dog I got was as big and black as you can get. So I gave that paradox to Lydia. I kind of like that it doesn’t make obvious sense. Maybe the power suggested by such a dog is an aspect of herself she feared?
Who are some of your literary influences?
I guess your deepest literary influences are what you read and loved when you were a child up to about fourteen or fifteen so mine would be A Wrinkle in Time, Alice in Wonderland, Oliver Twist, Lolita, the Bobbsey Twins, East of Eden, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. For years I went to a Baptist church with my friend Debbie so I read the Bible. And my father pressed boy books on me—I don’t think he thought much of books by or about girls —so I read Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island. Everything I read influences me, though. I love newspapers.
As the novel progresses, the focus seems to shift from Lydia to Norris. Why is that?
I’m intrigued by the way people who are close to one another, especially people who are sometimes adversarial, seem to trade personality traits over time. You see it in couples, sometimes when they break up. And it happens when people die, the surviving friend or partner or offspring will take on traits of the person who’s gone, traits they didn’t even like, without knowing or intending to. It’s a kind of immortality. I thought Lydia was passing the baton to Norris, even though she didn’t mean to, like it was Norris’s turn to do some of the unsung work in the world now. She’s just getting started at the end. I didn’t plan that exactly; it just seemed to be what the story needed, a kind of opening out into the ambiguous future. Maybe, also, the book ends with Norris because a life story doesn’t end when someone dies. The story gets passed along to other people, to make something more from it. There tends to be a belief that the passing on of a spiritual inheritance is only a family matter—books often end with the next generation picking up where the older one left off—but it happens among friends, too, and that’s almost more poignant because the time is shorter and there’s less recognition for these relationships. Friendship doesn’t hold the same glorious position in the public imagination that family does.
You do a wonderful job of chronicling the varied experiences of each of the women as they maneuver middle age. Are these characters based on real-life women of your acquaintance?
No! But the dog, Maxine, is. She’s based on my late dog Max (the big black one). He was wilder, though.
How did writing this novel affect your own feelings about growing older?
I think I was working out some stuff. I feel better now than I did when I was writing it.
What are you working on now?
Another novel, of course. Also, I just finished an essay for Katherine Ace, a painter who revisits Grimm Brothers fairy tales, and I’m starting one for my friend Richard Loving, an amazing painter who is about to celebrate his 90th birthday the same week his new show opens.