Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane

I cherish my friends and firmly believe that friendship is one of the best things about living. But, I also recognize that friendship takes work.  It requires one to stay in touch, to be proactive, to plan that lunch date, and to go out when you’d rather stay home and read a book.  I’m not perfect, some friends have drifted away — others, I don’t see enough and I sometimes wonder if I prefer the concept of friendship to the actual participation.

With that preamble, you’ll see why I found Rules for Visiting immediately intriguing.

Here is May Attaway, a middle-aged landscape gardener who is introverted, socially awkward, and living with her father and a cat. She and her father live in a small town and have their routines.  May and her father are equally unconventional and often cranky, but try not to be:

My father and I aren’t great at doing things at the same time as other people:  planting on the last frost date, reading the latest bestseller, eating turkey [at holidays].  I don’t know if it’s chronic procrastination or a dislike of team sports.

May planted a Yew tree on the university grounds where she is employed as a landscape gardener.  She carefully started this Yew tree with a cutting from a famous 3,000 year old specimen in Scotland and has carefully tended it for years.   The beautiful tree inspired one of the university’s professors to write an award-winning poem which has brought the university many accolades. To reward May for her part in cultivating the tree, the university grants her a month of paid vacation.

May takes her time and many pages to figure out what she wants to do with this gift of unscheduled time.  She reads an article about the death of an author, who sadly died while on tour promoting her first novel.  The outpouring of grief from her friends was overwhelming and shared on a webpage which May obsessively pours through.  People shared beautiful stories about Amber and it wasn’t her book or her writing, so much as her ability make people feel good being around her — to be a good friend:

What was obvious in post after post was that Amber had a talent for friendship, which, I suddenly understood, was something that one could be good at, like cooking or singing.  You could be good at being a friend, and no sooner had I had the thought, than I knew I was not.

Inspired to learn to be a friend, May decides to visit four friends from her past.  While she has uncertainties about these friends and her friendships with them — armed with hostess gifts, Emily Post’s guide to etiquette, and her rolling suitcase named Grendel — she sets off.

Her journey is filled with contemplation and mental journeys into the past.  Her mother was a recluse and, as May herself is venturing into this uncomfortable territory, she ponders the plight (and perhaps the advantages) of being sequestered:

People feel sorry for the housebound, but it can be a position of strength, a refusal to meet the world on its terms… The recluse decides when and to whom she will speak, access is limited.

After perusing Emily Post, May makes some rules for her visits, and shares some delightful musings about visiting.  She recounts that Hans Christian Anderson ruined his friendship with Charles Dickens by staying with him three weeks longer than planned.  And these great quotes:

It was a delightful visit — perfect, in being much too short (Jane Austen)

Fish and visitors stink in three days. (Benjamin Franklin)

I won’t go into the details of her visits, except to say that she meets with perfectly appointed guest rooms with matching guest towels and planned itineraries, often including tours of local gardens — afterwards followed by the host’s Facebook posts about her visit.  May muses on this:

…one of the questions I most wanted to ask my friends was: Can I see an average day in your life right now? A real day, not one curated for social media or filled with the best activities to entertain a visitor. On the one hand, it’s a simple question. On the other, it’s almost too intimate. And it might be impossible, because the presence of a visitor changes a day, no matter how close the friends are.

But May also gets to see her friends’ troubles — she wipes some tears, deals with precocious children, and receives unexpected affection.  Her friends aren’t perfect and can’t possibly meet May’s expectations.  But, she soon realizes one of the most important facets of friendship – overlooking the annoyances, the sharp edges, the unintended hurts — and learns to enjoy these friends just as they are — themselves.

This novel is not only about friendship and families — but also plants. Ms. Kane uses botanical interludes throughout the book. Delightful sketches of trees introduce each section with Latin names given in parentheses. These plant narratives provide cogent analogies between human and plant behavior.  These were entertaining for me, but may not be interesting for non-plant people.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rules for Visiting — it’s a quiet gem of a novel about a complex, wry, yet insecure woman in pursuit of friendship and human connection.  And this reader came away with a renewed sense of the importance of friendships — and gently reminded they require attention, forgiveness, risk, vulnerability —  but mostly love.

In the last chapter we are given May’s Rules for Visiting:

1. Do not arrive telling stories about the difficulties of your trip.
2. Bring a gift.
3. Make your bed and open the curtains.
4. Help in the kitchen, if you’re wanted.
5. Unless you are very good with children, wait until you hear at least one adult moving around before getting up in the morning.
6. Don’t feed the pets.
7. Don’t sit in your host’s place.
8. If you break something, admit it.
9. Say goodnight before bed.
10. Always send a thank-you note.

An advanced readers copy was provided by Penguin/Random House.

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