Taking place primarily in the mid-1950s, Iola O is a biting and forthright look at personal hopes and dreams, thwarted and received, within the framework of love, marriage, and family. After escaping small-town life to become a pilot Iola is briefly signed on to the WASPs but laid off at the end of the war. Jim is a thwarted chemistry major who forfeited his university savings to pay his sister’s medical bills. Now he lives with his mother, who never stops reminding him of his obligations to her. As if this weren’t enough, he is a closet homosexual who is dragging his guilt and shame around like a ball and chain as sadly many men in the ´50s had to do. When Jim and Iola meet, they don’t so much fall in love as fall in marriage. Three children follow.
Life just happens throughout much of this extremely well-written novel told in short chapters in staccato-like stream-of-consciousness thinking/dialogue, alternating between Jim and Iola’s point-of-view. Jim comments that the marriage is held together by ‘kid cement’. Iola never gives up her dream of flying and is briefly rewarded, but the consequences are painful. She finally realises that Jim is gay (were the setting contemporary, I think this lightbulb moment would have come sooner) and asks him about it during a poignant moment, when they both admit to having had an affair. There are no recriminations, no need for forgiveness―just acceptance and relief. This is a rewarding account of the mundanity of life. It’s not historical fiction as I have come to know it, but the descriptions keep it firmly grounded in the ´50s. Monks has an acerbic wit and is unflinching in her portrayal of these deeply flawed individuals (and their observations of others) who love each other in their own way. Much to be learned here.