Johanna: A Novel of the Van Gogh Family–Claire Cooperstein

The premise for this novel is fascinating.  Van Gogh’s sister-in-law kept a diary, which sits on a library shelf, inaccessible to researchers.  Johanna Van Gogh was newly engaged when Vincent cut off his ear and his descent into active madness occurred during the short time of her marriage.  When Vincent succeeded in killing himself, her husband, Theo, also descended into madness, during which he tried to kill her and their infant son.  Theo was an art dealer who championed Vincent’s work and that of the Impressionists.  Upon his death, Johanna took up the cause of establishing Vincent’s legacy, even though this meant cutting herself off from most of her family and struggling to support herself and her son by maintaining a boarding house in which she exhibited Vincent’s work.  She received support from another artists, Johann Gottschalk, who eventually became her second husband.

Cooperstein tells Johanna’s story through factionalized letters and diary entries that she has imagined after researching the actual letters and sources about the lives of the Van Gogh brothers and the artists around them.

It’s a quick read and a fascinating look at an oft-eclipsed key figure in the history of modern art and the struggle for women’s rights in the Netherlands.

Finished 7/30/12


The Wedding–Imraan Coovadia

I am in love this summer with stories from India, set in India, associated with India.  Coovadia’s novel explores issues of class, love, and exile as his protagonist, Ismet, spies from a train window the woman he believes is destined to be his bride, Khateja, while traveling across India for business.  He breaks with his usual caution and leaves the train, seeks out the woman, finds her father, and arranges for their marriage.   Khateja is a woman ahead of her time and her rural custom who desires an independent life, but finds herself sold away to Ismet.  She is the stereotypical shrew and seeks to make Ismet’s life miserable as compensation for his tearing her from her comfortable rural life.  He waits patiently, keeping faith with the destiny that sent him to her, and eventually, after they have spent several years in South Africa, she falls in love and realizes it has happened.

Coovadia has created fascinating characters and an entrancing setting.

My frustration with the novel is that, after many chapters of the struggle, they fall in love and Ismet, who waited so long for her to come around, marries a second, younger wife.  What was going on there?  Is this another Coover fairy tale, that it’s about the quest, not the object of the quest?  Another grim reality.

Finished 7/26/12

Briar Rose–Robert Coover

Grim fairy tales.  Without the extra m.

Coover reimagines the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of Beauty and the prince, as well as the witch/fairy who casts the enchantment.  There is no salvation for Beauty in Coover’s vision and only the glory of the quest for the prince, for whom even a legendary beauty is not enough.  If there is a hero, it’s the witch/fairy, who moves from tormentor to prophet as Beauty’s hundred years of nightmares become realities from which she cannot wake.

A quick read, but no happy ending here.

Finished 7/23/12

Judy Garland, Ginger Love–Nicole Cooley


I hate to admit it, but cover art plays a role in my reading decisions and this cover art nearly caused me to put this one back on the shelf.  It’s gaudy.  It’s busy.  It should have warned me off.  However, I don’t like that I’m so superficial, so I read the blurb and was caught by the “motherhood and sisterhood, being and becoming, loving and learning to let go.”  Stretching my horizons would be a learning experience.

Nicole Cooley creates memorable characters with the immigrant Agatha and her twin, Agnes, left in Europe to waste away from sorrow.  Her granddaughter, Lily, an aspiring ballet dancer whose one encounter with a male dancer leads to a pregnancy with twins, Madelaine and Alice.  Lily is lost in her lost life, her chance to dance, and she passes along the family vinegar secret to her daughters, as Agatha had passed it along to her–to drink vinegar and induce vomiting to remain pure.

When we meet Alice she has recently lost her daughter, who died in the womb and remained there for weeks before delivery.  She is wrecked and (re)turns to her damaged twin, Madelaine, in Sarasota, Florida.  She lies to her therapist, cuts herself off from her husband, and only opens to a senior citizen in her art class, Helen, who is childless after a series of miscarriages.

Cooley takes us into the dark space of mourning:  Agnes for her twin, Madelaine for her mother, Alice for her daughter and her lost childhood.  Art, Catholicism, and what it means to be a mother, daughter, sister, and wife form a complex web of associations through which Alice wanders and from which there seems no escape.

This dark space of the novel is one problem,which is so believable that it sucks the reader in.  The other problem is that the space is so dark Cooley is not entirely sure how to get out of it, either.  The novel ends abruptly with a visit to the grave of the deceased daughter.  There is no closure.  Alice has a long road ahead of her, which is reality.  The reader is left hanging in that same space.  Not a happy ending or a quick beach read, but an interesting study of sorrow.

Finished 7/19/12

Mapp & Lucia–E. F. Benson

Benson wrote a series of satirical novels in the late nineteenth century that featured two formidable social leaders, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas, the crown jewel of which was republished in 2000 as part of the Prion Humor Classics series.  Ms. Lucas, known as Lucia by her friends due to her fondness for sprinkling her speech with Italian phrases, is just emerging from mourning for her husband when the novel opens.   Newly widowed, she had given up the social reins of Riseholme, and Benson traces her skillful negotiation of her re-entry into society in the novel’s opening act.  Seeking a change of scenery, Lucia latches onto the plan to rent a home in Tilling, Mallards, for the summer.  Her friend and piano partner, Georgie, joins her and some hilarity ensues as both realize with horror that they are now free to marry.  Elizabeth Mapp rules the social scene of Tilling and it’s her home that Lucia rents, which sets in motion a series of rentals in the town that allow several women a change of scenery and extra income while not having to leave town.  Benson paints small-town life with great skill and the small affronts and duels are as true to life in 2012 as they were in the 1890s when this was written.  A case in point is the cutesy use of “au reservoir” among those in the know.   The least masculine of the male characters, Georgie, who collects bibelots and does needlework, is the most fully developed.  This is a world ruled by estrogen, but estrogen in battle rather than a nurturing Victorian vision of womanhood.  The highlight of the battle between the two social queens comes when they float out to sea on a kitchen table, which is featured on the Prion cover.  Once again we see a modern heroine in Lucia, who makes the best of her months at sea, learning to sail, tie knots, and walk barefoot on board ship while Mapp moans and groans with seasickness in her bunk.

Ah, for the nineteenth-century eye for humanity.

Finished 7/17/12

The Archivist: A Novel–Martha Cooley

Martha Cooley’s first novel, published in 1998, is a brilliant reflection on responsibility and history.  Judith and Matthias share childhoods of emotional isolation.  Judith was raised by her good-time aunt and uncle, her parents killed when she was an infant.  Matthias was raised by his God-fearing mother and emotionally retreating father.  Both were only children and both love language, particularly poetry.  Their names suggest their big difference:  Judith is Jewish, Matthias Christian.  The novel begins with a riff on Matthias name-sake, who was chosen to replace Judas.  There is no riff on Judith’s name, but Judith is the heroine who goes into the enemy camp, pseudo-seduces Holofernes, and cuts his head off, which she brings with her on her return to the Jewish camp.  This is no wilting flower namesake.

Cooley tells us early on that Judith is gone, a victim of suicide.  We see Matthias’ isolated life as an archivist for a major university, alone with the relics of the past in his personal and public life.  Into this isolation steps Roberta, a Jewish woman physically reminiscent of Judith and, as he learns, emotionally similar, also.  Roberta’s parents escaped Nazi Europe, converted to Christianity, and recently revealed the truth to Roberta.  Roberta, a poet, cannot cope with her parents’ lie, and she has focused on T.S. Eliot’s decision to leave his wife, incarcerated in a mental institution, and continue his relationship, by letters, with the American, Emily Hale.  Hale donated Eliot’s letters to Matthias’ university, his archive, to be closed until 2020.  Roberta wants access because she is sure those letters contain the key to Eliot’s hypocrisy, his Anglicanism in the face of his desertion of Vivienne.

Roberta’s request spurs Matthias’ conscience, because he has read the letters.  Eliot’s struggles echo his own as he chose to institutionalize Judith.

Now the middle of the novel.  We read Judith’s journal, written after she was institutionalized.  We do not see her irrational behavior.  We see her reasoning, her sorrow, her inability to cope with the losses and the collective and personal guilt, and her sense of betrayal as she watches Matthias pull away from her.

In the novel’s conclusion, Matthias copes with his decision to read the letters and Judith’s journal, meant only for her therapist, and Roberta’s desire to read the Hale letters.  Truths emerge like spring flowers and the ending is unexpected and sudden.

Cooley pushes into uncomfortable areas–the nature and extent of love of all types, the limits of collective responsibility and our sense of humanity, and the difference between truth and appearance.

I look forward to seeing what she tackled in her second novel.

Finished 7/8/12

the old ballerina–ellen cooney

I would not normally have picked this book off the shelf, but my midlife crisis is taking place around art and the way we express ourselves through various art forms.  The book jacket says this is a story about the creative process and how art can and will happen anywhere.

It’s a novel, but more a collection of stories tied together by a common acquaintance, Mrs. Kamsky, an old ballerina who gives lessons to teenage boys in an upscale suburb.  The story line of Mrs. Kamsky’s life is never clear.  Neither is the story of most of the characters.  Most clear is Lisette, a former pupil of Mrs. Kamsky’s, who had an affair, broke her feet, and escaped, only to return when Mrs. Kamsky summons her, and Davey Peete, from a construction family, who breaks another boy’s kneecap and is strong-armed into taking ballet lessons, only to fall in love with ballet.

It was not what I thought, but I did not stop reading it, either.  I am not in love with it, but it stirred me, much like each character describes the way Mrs. Kamsky stirs them.

Finished 7/2/12