It's the day of Lydia's big winter party for her closest female friends. The tradition was started 19 years ago, and it's usually a highlight for Lydia --- a warm spot in frigid January, filled with feasting and confessing. This year, however, Lydia is having a challenging time even preparing for the gathering. She has missed giving the party a few times over the years, and now cannot help reflecting that this is her 13th Bleak Midwinter Bash. It feels like an unlucky number.
As Lydia stands before the mirror, trying to decide what she should wear, she meditates on aging. The years have caught up to her, sharply accelerated recently. These physical changes have caught her by surprise since somehow she had once believed she was immune to "this precipitous downward slide."
Lydia is also remembering that, not so long ago, she had been contemplating how she should spend the final third of her life. She had been saving money for the goal of a comfortable old age. Now, however, thanks to the news that she has end-stage pancreatic cancer, she's been spending her money like crazy.
She has yet to tell her friends about her diagnosis but plans to make an announcement at the party. Figuring out how to go about telling them is emotionally draining, on top of her pervasive physical weakness. She also wants to write each friend a letter, telling her what her friendship has meant in her life, but this will entail the summoning of yet more emotional and physical energy.
As the day of the party progresses, we meet each of Lydia's friends. There's Norris, the famous artist. Lydia and Norris have been friends for a very long time, but their shared history is complicated by envy and betrayal. Lydia is not even sure that Norris will attend the party.
Another friend, Elaine, feels beaten down by her life. She recently has lost both her mother and her beloved dog, and has gained lots of weight while grieving. In truth, she doesn't even want to go to Lydia's party, although she will force herself to attend.
Lydia and her group are mystified by their friend Betsy's marriage. Lydia is aware that Betsy's husband, Ted, has had relationships with men, but he and Betsy have negotiated their relationship's arrangement somehow. Lydia knows more than she wants to know about Ted, which impacts her friendship with Betsy.
Celia and Lydia were once very close but have drifted apart. Celia's life feels unsatisfactory. She and her husband struggle financially, and their teenage son is dramatic and needy. Two other friends round out the guest list: there's Jayne, who is now a lawyer, and Maura, who still pines for her deceased (and married) lover.
As Celia and her friends prepare for their party, getting to know them is an immersive experience, which makes their individual and collective tales following the party even more gripping. 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. On the surface, the story matter might seem to have the potential for being a big downer, yet author Margaret Hawkins has managed to transform it into a lovely life-affirming tale, making this meditation on mortality and friendship a pure delight for readers.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon