The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot: A Novel
“abundance of heart . . .”
The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot is the debut novel of Marianne Cronin. The novel explores the edges of two lives in retrospect from 1940 to 2014. It’s a tribute to two women, a 17 year old and old an 83 year old, both facing the fact of their existence on this earth, and the inevitable demise they face as their lives are shortening to a predictable end.
They meet in an art therapy class (The Rose Room) at the Glasgow Princess Royal Hospital and immediately discover a chemistry between them; Lenni shines through her hospital scrubs as witty and ironic, refusing to look at the unfortunate fate that has been dealt her (“When people say ‘terminal,’ I think of the airport.”); Margot presents as eccentric and wise, with a lifetime of unexpected secrets to tell.
Their imaginative premise emerges as they sense their opportunity: Both quirky women on the opposite ends of life decide to celebrate themselves with 100 paintings, each depicting a year and an important incident from their lives. It promises to be a joyful story.
The tone of Lenni’s voice—irreverent and blunt, insightful beyond her years—echoes the two doomed teenagers in The Fault in Our Stars. The obvious anguish of being witness to a young person who knows her time is limited to the confines of her terminal disease dictates that those in the thrall of such an unfortunate event must be wiser than anyone has a right to be, and it propels the reader into the story with something besides pity to hang on to.
The stories represented in the paintings that Margot and Lenni create to celebrate the 100 years between them are linked together with predictable hospital scenes, bringing the reader back to fluorescent-lit hallways and flyaway hospital gowns, wheelchairs, loudspeakers, needles, and plastic bags. The vivid past that is conjured with each story is thus dispelled with a reality check at predictable intervals.
Each chapter alternates between Lenni and Margot in chronological order with titles such as: “Lenni and Forgiveness” and “The First Kiss of Margot Macrae,” and subtitles “London, March 1960 Margot Docherty is Twenty-Nine Years Old.” Beginning with “Orebro, Sweden, January 11, 1998—Lenni Pettersson is One Year Old” and for Margot a morning in 1940 when she is nine years old, the overarching story encompasses these years with personal insight and historical detail.
On the edge of death and virtually abandoned by her parents, Lenni observes small things and cherishes them in the hospital moment, such as welcoming the presence of silverfish roaming the cracks at night. “You might think that I would want to get rid of them, that I might fear that they are in greater number than me,” Lenni tells the hospital chaplain Father Arthur about the bugs, “that they might be living in the wall in their disgusting thousands, but I quite like them. They remind me that life is possible in even the most inhospitable conditions.”
Her observations put her in full control of her narrative, so much so that when she falters, it’s almost a surprise. Despite the sad premise, and Lenni’s counterpoint, the narrative, which unfolds like peeling back the skin of an orange, layer by layer, brings the reader into the present to live a few more moments of normalcy in two lives doomed to end soon. Oddly, Margot’s voice through the telling of her life’s adventures, her loves, her regrets and moments of inspiration, comes through as more explorative and vulnerable; she seems to have questions still to answer before she goes gentle into the night.
And it isn’t until page 151, after Margo has told her 29th story and both have made paintings representing their consecutive years up until then, that Margot confesses to Lenni that “It’s my heart. The reason I’m here, it’s my heart.”
For the reader, the reason to read is the abundance of heart, found on every page.