“Ida and Martha: A Montana Story” by Sara Fretz-Goering is a well-crafted, thoughtful novel about two women who rekindle their college friendship while running a guest house in Montana together. They happen to be in their 70s. Now, if you hear “old women characters” and think “old lady book,” don’t. In “Ida and Martha,” Fretz-Goering has skillfully crafted a fun, entertaining story about various people of various ages. The two main characters are complex older women, processing their past and living their present. They are having realizations about what went on decades ago and having new adventures, developing new perspectives, and forming new relationships, including romantic (and sexual!) ones. They are revisiting mysteries from long ago and figuring out how to make sense of them now, all while confronting the ebb and flow of friendship. In addition, though, there are a number of other well-developed figures, including characters who happen to be men and/or twenty-somethings.
For those who know I usually read thrillers or non-fiction, I should clarify that “Ida and Martha” is neither. The novel falls squarely into the literary fiction category, but that does not mean it lacks surprises. Several times, a tiny detail lodged in the back of my mind, and then later, I was hit with that great ah-ha moment – the time when you realize, “Oh, that’s what was really going on!”
“Ida and Martha” weaves in a fair share of life’s tragedies, including stillbirth, death, abandonment, dementia, abuse. Fretz-Goering handles these heavy topics realistically and appropriately, and I was glad to have them incorporated, as they are prevalent challenges too often swept under the rug. Today’s controversies are incorporated into the conversations and subplots, everything from gun control and patriotism to racism and sexual orientation. On a lighter note, birth and love make it into the storyline too. All in all, the characters seem like a new set of friends I would like to have (mostly)—and I could even envision a TV series based on this whole premise.
There is a Mennonite angle to this book, but I want to emphasize that it does not boil down into simply “Mennonite lit.” Still, the author has Mennonite heritage, and it is interesting to see how she weaves Mennonite threads into the story. As a reader who married into a Mennonite family and attends a Mennonite Church, I found the references clever and apt, even when critical. To me, the Mennonite element was distinctly present, but not overbearing. I felt any reader of any religious persuasion (or atheist) could relate to the questions about religion, existence and God that arise, and if you happen to be curious about the thinking process of modern urban Mennonites (or former ones), you could also pick up some hints about that too. (Full disclosure: I know the author through this Mennonite connection, but she did not know I would review her book, and I bought it myself online.)
If you are uptight about typos, and you’re not used to books published by indie authors, brace yourself: You will notice some typos, particularly the double period and inconsistencies with hyphens and dashes. However, independent authors almost never have a team of professional copy editors combing through their work, so these glitches are basically inevitable. Don’t let them detract from the value of the literature.
The mixture of the wisdom of the women due to their age and the thrill of their new endeavors seems pretty unusual in fiction. Is it unusual in real life? I don’t know how many women have been able to enjoy their old age, historically speaking, but “Ida and Martha” didn’t come across as far-fetched. Even if it wasn’t common in the past, who’s to say it won’t be going forward? This version of the “winter” of life gives me hope. It’s nice to envision how rich and enjoyable life could be a few decades down the road, despite the challenges and tragedies along the way. I kept wondering how Fretz-Goering could possibly deal with the end of this book, considering the late stage of life of many of the characters, but she managed to do it with finesse. Turns out, some things are winding up, and other things are just getting started.