Perhaps the greatest irony of our modern era is that in a time when we appear more connected than ever, most of us have never felt more alone. Certainly this is true for May Attaway, the protagonist of Jessica Francis Kane’s meditative second novel, Rules for Visiting.
Largely preferring the company of plants to people, May is a single, middle-aged woman who lives in her childhood home with her father and cat and works as a gardener at the local university. She is the first to admit that although her world is relatively small and uneventful, the life she has cultivated for herself is a comfortable one (albeit mundane and vaguely hermitic). When she is gifted with an unanticipated month of paid vacation, May is inspired to revise her stance on relationships and broaden her horizons. Armed with little more than an Emily Post guide to etiquette, a book of quotations on friendship and a suitcase named Grendel (after the friendless monster in Beowulf), May sets out on a transformative pilgrimage to reconnect with the four women she considers her dearest friends.
A 21st-century novel for those with old-fashioned sensibilities, Rules for Visiting is an empathetic yet enigmatic read. May’s story is not for the impatient, as the narrative perambulates through a series of discursive musings on friendship, flora, family, grief and how connections can fail or flourish in this modern age. For much of the novel, May keeps the reader at arm’s length, charming with her wry wit but using these rhetoric sleights of hand as substitutes for real understanding and intimacy. But as May becomes more comfortable with the art of connecting with the people in her life, she reveals more of her true heart to the reader as well, gradually shedding light on the trauma that led to such a closed-off life.
Rules for Visiting takes its time to fully take root, but the end result is a sturdy novel that blossoms rather beautifully.