The Blue Girl–Laurie Foos

Laurie Foos writes surreal novels.  At least that is what literary critics say.  I have read two of her novels–this one and her debut, Ex Utero, and I can say that both left my head spinning.

While Ex Utero was wickedly funny, The Blue Girl is drenched with sadness.  I was not surprised to read that Foos wrote the novel in the wake of losing her father and mother.  Those are huge losses that make most people question everything.

The blue girl is a rumor among the summer people (and locals) in an unnamed lake town.  Her skin is blue and becomes more blue as the tale progresses, but Foos never tells us exactly what sort of blue.  We are left to insert our interpretations.

Three middle-aged friends struggle as their relationships with their husbands change and they recognize their own dissatisfaction.  Their oldest children are teenagers, a time that is challenging for nearly all parents and that can cause parents to question the job they have done and whether they should ever have become parents.  Irene’s husband has suffered a nervous breakdown and spends nights playing Nerf basketball in the living room and fears the television will explode if turned on.  Libby’s husband stays at work until the early morning hours and, although the big box store he works at does not stay open that long, Libby does not question him.  Their oldest son suffers from fragile x syndrome, attends a special school, and has to be locked in his room at night.  Magda’s life seems the most normal, but she grieves for her dead mother and converses with her as she ponders her children, her son full of hormones and not very bright and her daughter smart, but with her mother’s thick waist.

Each of them resents the summer people for different reasons.  Magda was a summer person who became trapped in the town through the excitement of hormones and scantily-clad bathing suited bodies.  The moms and children visit the lake after the summer people have left for the season, but it is only Audrey, Irene’s teenage daughter, who has wits enough to dive in and give CPR to a girl who is drowning–the blue girl.  From that moment everything does not change, but it accelerates.  Audrey can no longer sleep.  Neither can her younger brother, Buck, who asks over and over to hear the story of how she saved the blue girl and who dreams of her every night.  Audrey cannot escape how wonderful and complete she felt as she closed her lips over those of the blue girls, but her inability to sleep leaves her scattered and thin.  Greg cannot stop cursing the “fucking blue girl.”

The mothers bake moon pies and, after everyone else is asleep, drive out to the blue girl’s house, seek admission from the old woman she lives with, and one by one enter her room and feed her the moon pies into which they whispered their secrets.  They leave lighter than they left and convinced they  have done a good deed.

But as Audrey becomes thinner and Caroline’s grades begin to slip and Greg and Rebecca begin sneaking out together and Magda becomes concerned that her son will be trapped the same way she was, the trips to the blue girl become less satisfying and the children begin asking too many questions.  The mothers stop asking questions they should be asking and when Libby’s and Irene’s sons turn up missing one night, everyone goes together to find the blue girl and the secrets are released.

I read through this book feverishly.  I wanted to know what the blue girl was and whether or not she was real.  Why was Irene’s husband mentally ill?  Why did Libby’s husband stop coming home and why was Magda’s husband so unaware of his family’s turmoil?  I wish I could say Foos answered these questions, but she did not.  These are the questions she leaves us with and perhaps the questions to which there is no real answer.  What causes a person to snap?  Why do marriages fall apart?  And is the marriage in which the husband does not come home until the early morning more apart than the one in which the husband is present, but disconnected from everyone’s emotions?

What a lovely idea that there is somewhere a repository that is waiting to receive our griefs, our miseries, our shames.  But what happens to that repository when it is filled, as it must eventually be?  I don’t know if I would recommend Foos to most of my friends, but I will keep her books on my shelf, which is something I do with few books the older I become.  Maybe someday they will give me the answers I missed the first time.

Finished 10/25/15


The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves–Stephen Grosz

examined life
How did I end up ordering this book? It’s not my type–written by a psychoanalyst, full of stories about his patients. I have to have heard it reviewed on Fresh Air by Maureen Corrigan, whose reviews I generally adore. She can talk me into just about any book.  However I found it, I put it on my Amazon Wish List and, this summer to round out an order for free shipping, moved it into my cart. Three days ago I finally opened it.

Why did Grosz write this boook? The jacket says we all tell stories and all need someone to listen, but Grosz’ epigraph is from Andre Dubus II, Broken Vessels–“We receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after losses.” He ends the book with a story about a patient he could not save and a closing paragraph that laments the patients he has lost since his days as a young therapist and his wish to reach out to them and say one more thing (the opposite of listening, really). To me, the author of the book jacket got it wrong. This is not a book about listening. It’s a book about losses and the ways we try to survive with loss. As an academic I support that with his epigraph and his closing, but I must acknowledge that the theme of loss resonates particularly with me this fall as I read this book just weeks before the anniversary of my father’s death.

In each story, Grosz helps his patient (and sometimes himself) uncover what is painful, what is lost. He writes early in the book, “At one time or another, we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing we lost the only means we have of knowing what hurts us, and why” (27). Later he writes that closure is a fantasy of mourning and compares it to visiting a clairvoyant. “Closure,” he writes, “is just as delusive–it is the false hope that we can deaden our living grief” (210). Grief does not end, but can surprise us years after our loss. What happens when we close off our grief because our culture has told us grief is something we do and then finish? We act like his patients. We act like ourselves–everyday crazy and a bit adrift. We lose ourselves, in his subtitle, by not allowing ourselves the experience of grief and we only find ourselves when we acknowledge and allow ourselves our grief(s).

It’s still not my type of book. I’ll be honest. I felt a bit indulgent at times reading the stories. Not quite Nicholas Sparks, but in that area. I’ll also be honest and say that his view of grief, his permission to allow grief to be ongoing and spasmodic, his permission to not feel a failure for being unable to “do” and finish grief, was liberating. I felt like he heard me before I opened the covers.

Finished 12/1/14

The Year of Magical Thinking-Joan Didion

year of magical thinking

I think I put this book on my Amazon wish list after reading about it in The End of Your Life Book Club.  I did not get to ordering it right away, a fact that was providential as when I put it on my list, I had suffered losses, but not the kind of loss I suffered since. That kind of loss made Didion’s magical thinking make all kinds of sense.  Losing my father and watching my mother process her loss lent layers of meanings to my reading.

Didion starts the book, “Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant.”  So simple, but true.  Near the end of the book she writes, “what gives those December days a year ago their sharper focus is their ending.”  Everything is ordinary, everything blurs until something dramatic, some drama, forces us to pay attention to every detail, to return to those details in obsessive reflection.  That obsessive reflection underpins the entire project of the book.

Didion’s husband dies from a massive coronary while she is preparing dinner.  He had earlier undergone angioplasty to open up arteries clogged over 90%.  True to her writer identity, Didion thinks of literature and the way in which characters foresee or foreshadow their own deaths.  Did John, her husband, know what was coming?  With each memory, each connection she sees another clue that suggests perhaps he did and long before she might have expected.  She wants to rationalize the irrational.  She researches death, heart failure, grief.

She notes the difference between grief and mourning.  “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”  Later she notes that “grief is passive.  Grief happened.  Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.”

What Didion says is likely not new.  That is the beauty,  For anyone who has suffered this type of loss the recognition of their own experienced is what makes each step of her journey so beautiful, what keeps the pages turning.  That we all think the funeral is the hardest part, but it’s the easiest because we have focus and support and permission.  That every day of the first year is filled with what we were doing last year when we were whole.  That grief does come in waves, sometimes tidal, that chase us from parties or into bathrooms to cry without disturbing the calm of everyone else’s lives.  That without someone so close, we must reinvent ourselves and that very reinvention feels like a betrayal so painful that we hold ourselves in place rather than be so guilty.  That we second guess every second, every day, every year preceding the moment of loss.  That we try to put ourselves in the place of the lost to understand what it feels to be the one leaving rather than the one left.  That loss shakes what faith we have and reveals the weakness in the faith we will carry forward.

In the closing pages, after a year has passed since her husband’s death, Didion has an epiphany while crossing the street.  “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.  I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.  Let them become the photograph on the table.”  And here I cried because I am not at that emotional point yet.  I know it must be true, but I am not ready.  What The Year of Magical Thinking does, however, is reassure me that I will be because Didion’s account of her process, her grief, her mourning, is so honest and so authentic that her assurance that we reach this point must also be true.

Finished 6/10/14