Reviewed by Anastasia Wickham
“If at the end of our lives we’re nothing more than a collection of our memories, then I know John has had a very good life.”
Richard Wickliffe’s 2013 novel is 265 pages of nostalgic summer enjoyment. Memories of Holly Woode is an easy read with short chapters rife with scenes of rich imagery. In addition to a story that is easily visualized, images created by the author are included in this romantic and humorous account of the lives of John and Holly, as told by protagonist John. Wickliffe captures iconic American culture as John moves from a utopian small town to an adventurous life of world travels and run-ins with famous characters like “Papa” Hemingway and President Truman. Wickliffe’s talent for visual art and photography, his interest in history, and his knack for comedy work together beautifully.
On the second page, we meet Jill Avery, who has recently moved to the small town of Shelbyville where she finds work at an assisted living facility. Her life includes financial strains, juggling a one-year-old son, and a seemingly unromantic husband, Ed. At her new job, Jill meets John, a charming old man whose touching dedication to his ailing wife often leaves him waiting outside Room 102 for hours as his wife sleeps. This setting provides him ample time to partake in his favorite pastime—telling his exciting and romantic life stories.
Jill is thrilled to be on the receiving end as John weaves his memories into the tapestry of his past life—at least as he recalls it. Jill comes to find out he has been a war hero, a world-traveler, and a powerful government agent. Because her own life is woefully lackluster, Jill is quickly drawn into the escape provided by the glamorous world of John’s youth. John recounts finding himself in the midst of real historical events, creating an interesting blend of fact and fiction just believable enough to entice readers to decipher the veracity of his memories.
Throughout the book, the perfection of John’s life is contrasted with the life of his ironically nicknamed best pal, Lucky. While John marries Holly, the undisputed most beautiful woman in the world, and travels to exotic locations, Lucky is stuck at home managing a small grocery store with Melda, his loving but far less attractive wife. Lucky suffers one misfortune after another, all juxtaposed with John’s seemingly infinite good luck.
Initially, Jill evaluates her life even more critically as she compares her experiences to John’s. As she listens to his stories, she realizes that, much to her chagrin, her life with Ed more closely mirrors Lucky and Melda’s than John and Holly’s. She relates to their financial struggles, their daily drudgeries, and their difficulty in conceiving a child.
However, as Jill returns each week to hear John’s continuing saga, she begins to recognize the value of her life as she defends Lucky and Melda’s. She slowly begins to see beauty and romance in their lives; they are hardworking people who love each other. To Lucky, Melda is the most beautiful woman in the world, more alluring than the pin-ups inspired by John’s Holly Woode. Jill begins to see that tragedies can strengthen love, just as an illness has reinforced John and Holly’s affection and dedication to one another.
Memories of Holly Woode is an uplifting story that transports readers to a simpler time as an old man reminisces about his idyllic life of yesteryear. The novel includes elements of suspense and an unexpected turn. Overall, Wickliffe offers a pleasant escape into the life of John while we relate to the modern tensions Jill faces. In the end, John’s perceptions open Jill’s mind to a fresh perspective on her life. She learns a valuable lesson that will remain with readers: our perceptions may change, but true love endures and sustains us.
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