So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

This book is astonishingly beautiful. I’ve read it twice in two weeks and I want to read it again already. It has taken me far longer than usual to write about, because I am struggling to find adequate words to express just how magnificent it is. It is just so elegantly, tenderly, movingly written, in prose that is delicate, graceful, understated, yet incredibly powerful. Maxwell’s narrator, now an old man, looks back to a pivotal event in his childhood, when a tenant farmer, Lloyd Wilson, was murdered by his former best friend, Clarence Smith, on a frosty morning in rural Illinois. Prior to this murder, the narrator had been friends with Smith’s son, Cletus, and he is haunted with the guilt of failing to maintain this relationship after Cletus’ life fell apart.

In less than 150 pages, Maxwell paints a portrait of rural life, of childhood, of loneliness, of friendship, of love, of grief, and of regret, so profound and so immediate that it takes your breath away. I was moved to tears in several places as Maxwell described the bond between Lloyd and Clarence, of their dependence on each other, of the joy each brought to the other’s lives; trapped as they are in a harsh, poverty stricken existence, tied to loveless marriages of convenience, and the pain Lloyd brought upon Clarence by helplessly falling in love with his wife.

Interspersed with the story of Lloyd and Clarence is that of the narrator himself, whose lonely childhood was filled with grief for the mother he lost too young, and was marked by his crippling shyness and sensitivity, making him fully aware that he was a disappointment to his father and would never fit in with his contemporaries. So Long, See You Tomorrow is highly deceptive; seemingly simple, the sparse words slowly wind their way around your heart, squeezing it until you are overcome with emotion for the men in this novel, whose lives gave them so little, and for whom happiness was never quite achieved. It is utterly, overwhelmingly, heartbreaking. Worst of all is the guilt felt by the narrator, who cannot forgive himself for failing to extend a hand of friendship to Cletus after the tragedy that tore his young life apart. I know well that feeling, of not being able to change, or atone for, an action in the past; how it haunts and taunts and poisons your memories, how it makes you wish you could have been braver, wiser, kinder.

I don’t think I have come across a finer work of modern fiction, except perhaps in Gilead. The magnificence of So Long, See You Tomorrow is impossible to overstate; it is perfection. It’s only 134 pages long – please take an afternoon and read it for yourself. It will pierce your soul, and remind you of what true greatness is.

52 comments

  1. Wow, Rachel, what a review! This has been on the pile by my bed for about a year – which is silly, considering it would only take me a couple of hours to read it. I loved They Came Like Swallows for its subtle brilliance and perceptiveness, madly bought a whole heap of Maxwell books, and then didn’t read anything more. Will definitely rectify soon…

    One of the books I’m currently reading is The Element of Lavishness: Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner. It is a real treat – both are great writers, and their letters are so funny, as well as having the perceptive qualities which make their novels so good.

    1. Thanks Simon! You need to get it off that pile and read it – it’s truly brilliant and I know you’ll love it. I just started They Came Like Swallows this morning – it’s fantastic! I sense an obsession coming on!

      Oooh, interesting – once I’ve read some more Maxwell I will seek those out!

  2. I think I’ve got a copy of this already and have been meaning to read it for years–your beautiful review and particularly the comparison to Gilead is just the push I need to go and get it off the shelf. Thanks!

    1. I’m glad you have a copy to hand, Susan – I hope you’re reading it right now! It’s definitely got a lot of similarities, prose wise, with Gilead for me, and I think anyone who appreciates that sort of book would love Maxwell.

  3. Maxwell is a superb writer. Have you read Time Will Darken It? I think that’s his masterpiece but all his novels are wonderful. Great review.

    1. I don’t think I’d even heard of Maxwell before I was given this – hard to believe but true! I looked for Time Will Darken It in the library but they didn’t have it, so I got They Came Like Swallows instead. I intend on ploughing through all of his novels now – they are brilliant. Glad you enjoyed the review!

  4. Comparison to Gilead? What more do I need to know? Anytime you love a book this much it goes immediately onto my wish list. In fact, since it’s as re-readable as you say, it might just find a home on my (new) Kindle.

  5. The anxiety produced when I give someone my favorite book and hope it will be loved has vanished. I knew you would see the beauty in this one. Do you know much about Maxwell? He was an editor at The New Yorker for many years and edited everyone. What a life in literature! What a writer.

    1. Oh Ellen, you need never be anxious – your taste is impeccable! I wish I had always had you in my life to inform my reading decisions!

      I know nothing about him and look forward to getting educated – I’m already on my second of his novels and I intend on reading my way through everything he ever wrote. I firmly believe he must have been a wonderful man with a beautiful heart because his writing could belong to no other soul!

      1. There is also a new book entitled What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence Between William Maxwell and Eudora Welty. You may still be able to download it for free from Netgalley.com.

  6. Don’t you just love a reading experience that turns you inside out? I was disappointed to discover that my library doesn’t carry this title. Quite frankly, the powers that be who order material have been letting me down on a regular basis! We do carry a compilation though and you’ve inspired me to take a peek.
    Your description of Maxwell’s writing reminds me of Helen Humphreys, who is utterly fabulous. Such a rollercoaster ride of emotions in so few pages, sheer magic.

    1. Yes! This certainly did that to me! Oh Darlene, that’s no good! Definitely get the compilation and then if you like him read this because you will love it, I know you will!

      Helen Humphreys? I am off to check this lady out!

  7. This is an amazing review. I read it twice on my phone on the way home, and have now logged on to say (a) amazing, such a powerful and heartfelt post – and I like that you’ve captured why as well as that you love it; (b) thank you. And to add it to my TBR list. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Rose! What lovely and generous things to say! I’m so glad you enjoyed the review as much as you did, and that you’ve added the book to your TBR list – I hope it makes it to the top very soon!

  8. Oh my goodness, that is one of the most enticing reviews I have ever read. I will definitely be buying this book. Thanks so much for the great recommendation and the beautifully written blog post.

  9. What a wonderful suggestion and review for a book I have not heard about. I think must experience something in their lifetime where they wish they could have done something, tried, atoned, made better . . . this sounds like a reading of the heart, Rachel. I’ll be on the lookout for it.

    1. I’m so glad I’ve been able to introduce you to a new author, Penny! I hope you manage to find it, as I know you’ll love it. A reading of the heart is a perfect way to describe it.

  10. Well, Rachel, I hope you’re pleased with yourself! Yet another wonderful review that has made me break my NO-MORE-BOOK-BUYING-FOR-AGES! rule. When I go bankrupt, I hope you’ll offer me a home… I also have Gilead on the TBR bookcase, ‘thanks’ to you!

    1. Well Penny I AM pleased because this book needs to be in your life and will enrich your soul and as such is PRICELESS. And of course you can come and stay when your bank account is empty – and find solace in my books!

      You’ll love Gilead too – get reading! What are you waiting for?!😉

      1. I’ll keep you to that!🙂

        Why am I not reading these yet? Because I have so many other great books on the go!🙂 I’ll be blogging about them sometime soon…

  11. Okay. The comparison to Gilead truly does put it up higher on the list to look out for, but the fact that you have already reread it, and would again also has me intrigued. Thanks for the review!

  12. I have Maxwell on my list of authors to be sure to read and now I which of his books to read! Thank you. You reviewd this book so well that I want to go and get it now because I’m so excited to read it. I’ve been anxious to read some books that will really touch and amaze me. I red many good books, some great but the ones I really love are the ones that make me stop and think. This sounds like one of those books.
    Thanks so much!

  13. Thank you so much I have been looking for a book to read and this seems like the perfect fit. Based on the review I will definitly be buying the book.

  14. I have heard lots and lots of good things said about William Maxwell and indeed bought a few of his books second hand based on peoples wonderful rave reviews of him. I think hes another author to dig out of the boxes and boxes of my tbr this weekend. Your enthusiasm is addictive by the way, oh and thank you so much for the Discovering Daphne button I see at the top of your page!

    1. Oh, Simon – he is absolutely out of this world. His writing is just incredible. You have to read him. I demand it! You are so welcome – I am so excited to read more Daphne – thank YOU and Polly for organising it!

  15. I don’t think I’ve read (or heard much) about William Maxwell before so I’ll be sure to check him out. When you come across as another that’s so good, you do want to read more by them, don’t you?

    1. Please do, Sakura! You won’t regret it! I can’t stop reading him…I just want to go and find somewhere to lay down and read until I’ve finished!

  16. My review of this has gone up, linking back to yours – and if you didn’t spot it, do look at the latest addition to my 50 Books You Must Read, the letters of Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner – I think you’d love it.

    and I’m all the more certain that you would like Virginia by Jens Christan Grondahl! Similar themes.

    Thanks for enthusing enough to get this up my tbr pile🙂

    1. Thanks Simon – I have heard of those letters and one of these days I’m sure I’ll get around to them!

      I’ve never heard of the Virginia book – I must see if I can track it down.🙂

      You are welcome and I am very glad that you enjoyed it!!

      1. I just read the book after first becoming aware of Maxwell while doing research on Eudora Welty. I read the book of their letters. Wonderful. Then a friend mentioned she was teaching So Long and I was inspired to check it out of the library. I read it in one night, sitting up until I had finished it. So moving. The parts about the dog were masterfully written and had me in tears. I can’t believe I had never really heard of WM before Now I want to read evrything he’s written.

  17. This is one of my favourite books and it is delightful to stumble across a review which captures exactly my own feelings about William Maxwell and his writing. Thank you.

  18. My experience with William Maxwell is alike to all of yours. I read So Long, See You Tomorrow first. It was one of the most beautifully written stories I had yet come across. I love terse prose mainly because the simplicity allows me to filter myself through it. If it’s too flowery I get distracted.

    Reading The Outermost Dream, a collection of essays and reviews by Maxwell, made me appreciate his abilities as editor and mentor. But for even clearer picture of Maxwell the man, check out A William Maxwell Portrait, which are essays written by other authors who were strongly influenced by him. In a phrase, he is the sort of man I wish to be.

    Happy reading!

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