When I finished reading this book today, I felt bereft. I was leaving behind a group of characters that I’d grown to love, a group of new friends that I desperately wanted to keep in touch with. I don’t think I’ve read such a beautifully crafted book in a very long time and the story-line, and characters are still suspended in my mind – rather like remembering a dream just before you wake up properly.
Monica Wood’s storytelling – what a gift – is mesmerising. The story hinges on an 11-year-old boy who meets a Lithuanian immigrant of 104 years of age. As a Scout, looking to increase his badges over a 10-week period, he visits each Saturday for 7 weeks, to carry out small tasks to help Ona Vitkus. Discovering her age, (and in part because of his love for lists) he encourages her to apply to the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest woman. They both discover that she’s several years away from that record, so he sets about trying to get her in the Book of World Records as the World’s Oldest Driver,
When he doesn’t come for two Saturdays in a row, Ona thinks that he’s just like all the other scouts that have been before him, then the boy’s father turns up on the 10th Saturday to fulfil his obligations. Mistrusting at first, Ona comes to rely on Quinn, the boy’s father, and between them they set about trying to finish the boy’s quest of getting Ona in the Guinness Book of World Records.
What Ona doesn’t know, at first, but later reads in the Obituaries, is that the boy dies unexpectedly and the father, in a bid to get to know his son continues the jobs that he had started. Gradually, a reluctant friendship begins, and Quinn’s ex-wife, Belle – a fragile woman so engulfed in grief that she can barely function – also gets involved with Ona, along with the scoutmaster, a widower with children, who is dating Belle.
Running alongside that main storyline is Quinn’s story. A musician, a guitarist, good and well-thought of by his fellow musicians, he gigs where he can to get the money, and works in a mail distributing plant on a regular basis. Belle, a librarian, has been unable to return to work because of her fragile state of mind and health and is heavily influenced by a sister and her father to sue the doctor who accidentally caused the boy’s death.
The boy, who is not named at all in the book, is the catalyst for bringing together a disparate group of people all of whom have their own problems to work through, and working together, and through the forging of a new friendships, each one is able to free themselves of any burden or guilt they’ve felt before, Quinn for being an absent father, Ona for a mistake made when she was 14 years of age, and Belle for being in love with the scoutmaster, Ted Leadbetter.
Weaving words together in a magic potion this story will outlast time itself. I can see it being made into a film and as long as the script writer remains faithful to the book, it will be an incredible film. I won’t forget this book in a long time and if I could write, half – or even a quarter – as good as Monica Wood does, I’ll be a very happy woman.