Ruth and Peter van Dusen have stood together for more than fifty years, and on the first day of the term in the Derry School for Boys in Northern Maine, they are still together, but facing what lies ahead for them, now that Peter will likely retire soon. Will this be his final year? And, if so, what will become of them? They have lived in the headmaster’s cottage for forty years. Where would they go?
We meet Ruth first, in this story that weaves the past and present together, but begins in the year that Ruth and Peter are in their late seventies. They have been childless all their married lives, and despite Ruth’s own university education at Smith, Peter has mostly been the primary breadwinner.
As we follow them into the past, we learn more about how their lives became intertwined, almost serendipitously, in their childhoods.
Was it love at first sight for the two of them, in the small Massachusetts town where they first met? And were they drawn together because it was forbidden? Or was there an explosive spark that was inevitable?
When something tragically alters their lives going forward in that year when they were in their seventies, they are forced to move on….and perhaps, to look backwards, to find the core of strength that has sustained them.
In their younger years, as Ruth struggled to find her own place, she returned regularly for many of those years to Dr. Wenning, the psychiatrist for whom she worked back then, but who has remained a confidante and support system for Ruth, helping her make sense of her past. The secrets she carried with her always would inform her present and future, but she seemed to make peace with them.
I enjoyed the back and forth flow of The Last First Day: A Novel, as it helped me understand more about this couple, who could seem, in their twilight years, to be just an ordinary husband and wife facing retirement. They are so much more…and at the end, I was sad to say goodbye to them. I liked how, in the ending, the author took us back again to reveal additional details about them. I wanted to know more about the past secrets that were never revealed, however, but perhaps the mystery was more like real life. A journey through the years from 1945-to the twenty-first century, the story centers on themes of family, careers, and women’s issues. Four stars.