Anne Leigh Parrish’s third novel, and sixth book of fiction, opens with Lavinia Starkhurst standing alone in her Upstate New York home when the phone rings. The caller informs Lavinia that her golfer husband has just been killed by a lightning strike. An empty nester in her early 50s, Lavinia is devastated by her sudden widowhood. But she also feels a surprising freedom, even as she is freighted with grief and guilt.
This grief inspires Lavinia to change her scenery. She embarks on a road trip toward her sister-in-law’s Montana home. “She has to get out,” Parrish says. “Not just out of the large house she never really liked but the town she’s lived in all her life. She wants to be away from her children, whose worry over her in her ‘time of need’ becomes cloying.”
Lavinia’s ensuing transformation is at the heart of this novel about self-understanding and new possibilities. “When she sets out, she carries with her a nagging doubt about her fundamental ability to love and forgive,” Parrish says. “She knows she’s a hard soul, impatient with the foibles of others. She also knows that she made both of her husbands unhappy, in different ways. She discovers that she married two men who were afraid of her.”
As the landscape changes from Eastern and Midwestern greenery to Western prairies and mountains, Lavinia changes, too. A spirit of generosity starts to take hold. She begins to leave profusely generous tips. She helps a stranger whose husband has stranded her at a Laundromat.
Parrish surprised herself while writing Lavinia’s encounters with the people she meets on the road. In one of Parrish’s favorite and most unexpected scenes, Lavinia is mistaken for a recently deceased woman’s long-lost companion. She even attends the woman’s funeral.
Another powerful sequence is Lavinia’s encounter with a transgender teen named Chuck, who introduces Lavinia to his friends. “Because they’re young and unorganized,” Parrish says, “Lavinia feels right at home in bossing them into action and taking care of the home they all live in.”
Lavinia is like an old friend to Parrish. She first appeared in Parrish’s second book, Our Love Could Light the World, a linked-story collection, in which we meet Lavinia when she was married to her first husband, Potter. “I wanted to write about her again,” Parrish says, “and I thought she should have her own story.”
For Parrish, road trips make for appealing narratives because they’re about escape and bridging past and future. “There is the thrill of everything that lies ahead, but there is also the pull of all that is being left behind,” she says. “The journey is an agent of change. You become a slightly different person from the one you were at the outset. Any travel alters one’s perception, but a road trip, where you’re in control of where you go and how quickly you get there, puts you in charge. That can be very exhilarating.”
Parrish hopes readers who accompany Lavinia on her trip in The Amendment discover that grieving is different for everyone. “You can leave home, but it all comes with you,” she says. “You must be willing to sort out your feelings no matter how painful or difficult. If you let yourself see other people for who they are and take stock of the kindness they’ve done you, you’re able to eventually be kind to yourself.”