The Sweet By and By is a novel told in the voices of four different women. There is Margaret, who is in her eighties and lives in a nursing home, Lorraine, one of the aides at the home, April, Lorraine’s daughter, and Rhonda, a hairdresser who does the ladies’ hair at the home once a week. Intertwined with all four of their lives is another resident of the nursing home, Bernice, whose mind has been taken over by grief and possibly her age, and is now what some might call senile. Over weeks, months, and years, The Sweet By and By tells the story of these five women as they get to know each other and deal with some huge heartaches and happinesses in their lives.
When I first began reading this novel, I was thinking I was in for another book about female relationships (this is not a complaint, I LOVE those kinds of books). But while The Sweet By and By revolves around five women, it is about so much more than just the friendships between them. Because it spans years, it really is about their individual lives, about the difficult things life throws at them and about their success stories and about how all those things made them into the people they were at the end of the novel. It was such a charming read, but more than charming, it was deep too. Deeper than I was expecting from a novel with dresses on the cover, but totally great all the same.
While I was hoping to connect with all of the characters in the novel, what I didn’t expect was how much I loved Margaret. My first impression was that I wouldn’t be able to relate to her – I have nothing in common with her, on the surface. But reading from Margaret’s point of view gave me so much food for thought about how we treat our elderly people in this society, sticking them in nursing homes, stripping them of their dignity and freedom to make their own choices, and treating them in general as if they are second-class citizens just based on their age and inability to perform certain tasks. I thought about how lucky I am that all three of my remaining grandparents are still able to live on their own, unassisted by nurses or family members. And how difficult it would be for any of the three of them if they were forced to sell their homes and move to a nursing home. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in a nursing home before, but The Sweet By and By captured everything about what life must be like for the residents there perfectly. It was sad and sweet and heartwarming all at the same time.
My second favorite character in the novel, after Margaret, has to be Lorraine. I enjoyed how Johnson drew out her story over the course of the novel, revealing so much about her past over the span of several chapters. She had been through so much heartache in her life, yet she was still so giving and loyal to others. She took such great care of Margaret, Bernice, and the other residents at the home despite the pain she was carrying around with her. And she tried so hard to protect her daughter from her own issues, although eventually they had an extremely poignant mother-daughter moment that broke my heart (in a good way).
I was so charmed by The Sweet By and By, honestly I just found this to be such a sweet, engrossing novel. Even though parts of the book brought a tear to my eye, overall it is such a hopeful book and there is so much love between the characters packed in just over 300 pages. For those of you who adore Southern fiction, this is a must-read. And as for the rest of you, it truly is a wonderful story that really made me think. I highly recommend The Sweet By and By.