Tuesday, October 19, 2021

‘Rules for Visiting’ by Jessica Francis Kane

Book Remarks

“Perhaps a best friend is someone who… holds the story of your life in mind. Sometimes in music a melodic line is so beautiful the notes feel inevitable; you can anticipate the next note through the long rest. Maybe that is friendship. A best friend holds your story in mind so notes don’t have to be repeated.”

Friends, like family, are witnesses to our life. They laugh with us, cry with us, provide life lessons and lots of fun. Not all friends stick around for the entire ride but each one, in their own exceptional way, matters.

What are the rules of friendship? Do they expire if they have been inactive for a specified time? Do childhood friends get special dispensation because they are the oldest? And do newer friendships carry more weight if they blossom during a tumultuous time in your life? I pondered these questions after reading “Rules for Visiting” by Jessica Francis Kane. The story revolves around friends, those acknowledged and those not, and what a difference they make in your life.

May Attaway is a university botanist who embraces trees and plants while keeping humans an arms-length away. She’s droll, slightly quirky and socially awkward. May lives with her father in their childhood home; she came to take care of her ailing mother and never left after she passed away. Her mother’s death triggered a reclusive instinct in May, and her life consists of tending the university grounds while making astute observations on people and their relationships to each other in the age of Social Media. This May isn’t the visiting type or the friend type yet one day, she is granted a 30-day paid leave as an award for inspiring a poet to write a prize winning poem about the Yew tree she planted on campus. Inexplicably even to her, she decides to parcel out this leave by visiting four old friends with whom she has lost contact.

For the first 70 or so pages, May talks about trees, ruminates on the Latin root of a lot of words and provides friendship quotes from famous people. While all this is interesting in a ‘that would be a good trivia question’ way, it wasn’t moving the story forward. Oh, I loved the treatises on trees, the beautiful drawings, and the analogy to Beowulf but it’s when May starts visiting that “Rules for Visiting” finds its groove.

First up is Lindy, her oldest childhood friend. Lindy is the quintessential suburban mom with a beautifully decorated house and picture perfect family. Next up is Neera, a college friend, who is going through an upheaval in life. Vanessa is another childhood friend who joined up with May and Lindy, also going through a new life experience. Rounding out the friends is Rose, a friend from graduate school and the one most in-tune to May as they met during a Landscape Architectural Program. Rose lives in England and provides one of the most poignant moments in the novel when the two women travel to Scotland to May’s Holy Grail, the Yew tree that provided the cutting for the poem-worthy tree on campus.

May comes home in-between all these visits and catches up her father and coworkers on her progress. (These coworkers are actually friends, although May doesn’t realize it at first). It’s fun to watch May be surprised out of her lonely existence. With each visit, she finds herself opening up more and more to other people. This enables her to relate what happened to her mother, interestingly by breaking the “fourth wall” and addressing us directly.

“Rules for Visiting” provided some interesting questions for me. Like many people living here, my roots are outside the state of Florida. Which means I left a lot of friends in other places. Facebook allows me to see what they are up to… but do I really know what they are up to? I know what they’ve had for dinner. I know where they have gone on vacation. But what made them choose Tahiti and not Thailand? And why are they baking that zucchini bread? And what moments are happening that are not documented? Are they not important, too? And if you don’t post a picture of spaghetti, does that mean it didn’t happen?

May’s desire to connect to her past comes because she is turning 40. I have a couple of friendships that are 40 years old. We rarely talk but we know each one is there should the need – or a trip nearby – occur. In between we’ve filled our lives with other friends, some still around and some long gone. And maybe that is what May discovers. Friends, like family, are witnesses to our life. They laugh with us, cry with us, provide life lessons and lots of fun. Not all friends stick around for the entire ride but each one, in their own exceptional way, matters.

Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.

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