Back in the 1930s, Dr. Howard Stovall Bennett III, then known as “Ward,” was the handsome hired hand at a Reno ranch that helped women establish Nevada state citizenship to get quickie divorces. A Yale dropout, Ward got the job after his wealthy Southern family lost everything in the Great Depression. In the wonderful, sweet Better Luck Next Time, a much older Ward recounts his time at the Flying Leap Dude Ranch to an unknown listener, whose identity is revealed at the end of the book.
Ward’s job is equal parts ranch hand, driver, waiter and listening ear to women biding their time until a judge will grant them a divorce. He spends hours sitting outside attorneys’ offices, listening to the women tell their stories. “It was like listening to a celestial radio that only picked up the saddest soap operas,” he says, “its dial twisted slowly by the universe across the whole unhappy bandwidth without settling anywhere for long.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Better Luck Next Time is great on audiobook.
The trouble starts when Nina comes to the Flying Leap. A wealthy heiress heading for her third divorce, Nina takes the heartbroken Emily, who has fled a serial cheater in San Francisco, under her wing. Soon Nina and Emily are embarking on all sorts of liquor- and grief-fueled adventures and roping Ward in to their fun. When Ward realizes he’s falling in love with Emily, he assumes his days at the Flying Leap are numbered.
A longtime magazine writer, Julia Claiborne Johnson follows up her hilarious first book, Be Frank With Me, with this more serious—but still witty and charming—offering. She paints a vivid picture of a hot, dry Reno summer during which women wait to see whether their luck has run out or is just beginning. Ward is a thoughtful narrator, telling his story with the mix of joy and melancholy that comes with being elderly. “When you get to be my age,” he muses, “things that happened fifty years ago start seeming more real to you than what happened yesterday.” Indeed, this is a story that will stay with you for a long time.