"The New Woman." By Jon Hassler. Viking. 214 Pages. $23.95.
At 87, Agatha McGee can get away with brutal honesty. After a lifetime of teaching young people in fictional Staggerford, Minn., Agatha has become the town's moral center, the woman who knows what is right, what is wrong. It allows her to say whatever she pleases.
"Spare me," she tells a man with Parkinson's disease when he offers to show her his bruises from falling down nearly 300 times.
In "The New Woman," the fifth book in Jon Hassler's "Staggerford" series, Agatha battles a life malaise - one she doesn't comprehend. She moves into Sunset Senior, the town's senior home, and feels hopelessly out of place. Agatha's misadventures - ranging from a lost brooch to exhuming the body of a dear friend to search for a possible winning lottery ticket - are chronicled.
But when she starts using her God-given gifts to help others in need, she rediscovers a zest for living, and becomes a "new woman" in the process.
To readers already familiar with the series, this latest novel will feel immediately comfortable.
For the uninitiated, Hassler takes great pains to make the book accessible, offering exposition at every turn. Despite many recurring characters and references to events long over by the start of this book (the first novel came out in 1977), it's possible to enjoy this installment without having read the previous four.
It's a quietly enjoyable read. Readers who love action and huge plot twists may quickly tire of the minutiae upon which Hassler focuses. But for those who like character-centered novels, "The New Woman" will surely please.
Agatha is a strong protagonist, full of life despite a tendency to moralize. It's when Hassler allows glimpses of her frailties - such as her overwhelming need to feel as though her judgments matter to others - that she is most human, and most likable.
Hassler has a powerful gift for exploring character, especially in the nuanced persona of Agatha and the eccentricities of the other characters living at Sunset Senior. Staggerford's quirky residents are usually charming, often droll and in rare moments laugh-out-loud funny.
Hassler also does a good job of holding on to multiple strings of plot.
Occasionally, however, his dialogue falters, especially when he uses it to offer exposition. When Agatha sees a longtime friend after a lengthy separation, she reminds her about the status of a common friend. "Your sister Lee Ann left him, and it breaks my heart to see him moping," she says.
These moments, where characters impart information already known to other characters (presumably) for the sake of the reader, are awkward and weaken the novel. They occur somewhat often.
By the end of the story, Agatha learns a lesson that could be valuable to young and old alike:
"I believe 'range of motion' applies to our psyches as well as our bodies," she says. "If we shut down parts of our thinking, we'll never get them back."