Leave Me–Gayle Forman

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This story begins with an all-too-real scenario.  Maribeth, in her early 40s, suffers a heart attack and does not realize it is happening.  She is too busy working and taking care of her family.

What happens from there left reality behind, at least for me.  Maribeth does not tell her husband that she is in the emergency room.  He is only summoned when she is rushed in for a stint, which turns into a bypass when an artery is perforated.

More unreality.  Maribeth has twin four-year-olds.  Her husband has asked her adopted mother to stay with them during her recovery, but against Maribeth’s wishes.  Her reasons become clear when her mother leaves the household chores and most of the care for the twins to the recovering Maribeth with a low lifting weight limit.  When her husband starts staying at work late and even her visiting nurse poo-poos her concerns about not having the rest she needs to recover, I nearly quit reading.  The urge to quit reading quadrupled when Maribeth walked out on her family after withdrawing her father’s bequest from her bank account.

Marriage, career, motherhood are demanding.  Small children are demanding.  Twins are demanding.  Writing a novel in which a mother disappears from her life, leaves behind young children without any contact for months, and is not sought by her husband and parents seems like a teenage fantasy.  I’ll run away and then they will be sorry!  I will be able to do whatever I want and no one can tell me what to do!  This may not be surprising from a young adult novelist writing her first novel for adults.  I hope her next novel features an adult woman who behaves more like an adult.

I had said I would write  a review, so I kept reading.  I am a reader who rarely quits a book.  I desperately want to find something salvageable before I close the back cover.

Forma managed to find a way to help me empathize with Maribeth.  She sent her in search of her biological mother, ostensibly to learn her health history.  She put a likable older female character in the mix.

This was not a horrible book.  It was not a great book.  It was a passable book.  If one is in the mood for indulging adolescent escape fantasies, perhaps it is the perfect book.

Finished 5/15/16

The Woman Upstairs–Claire Messud

 

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The Woman Upstairs begins and ends with anger.  “How angry am I?  You don’t want to know.  Nobody wants to know about that.”  And then “I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough–finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me–before I die to fucking well live.”

Nora Eldridge is a third-grade teacher.  The kids’ favorite third-grade teacher.  She’s an artist. She was doing very well in business and stopped to become a teacher.  She cared for her dying mother and now cares for her widowed aging father and elderly aunt.  She has a strained relationship with her brother, who is married with a child and who is too busy doing important life things to be bothered with the obligations that fall upon Nora.  Nora wanted to be an artist, but her mother convinced her to do something practical so she could support herself and be independent.  She pushed Nora not to repeat her own mistakes.  She made art something impractical, unworthy.  Nora loved her deeply. “I loved being her child.  I remember looking at her and thinking she was the most beautiful thing in the world.”  Then she had to watch her die by creeping steps from MS.

Nora refers to herself as the woman upstairs, the spinster about whom people don’t think much, and when they do it’s uncharitable.  In other ways she is the woman upstairs.  She lives in her own head, sometimes too much.  She thinks and thinks, but fears doing.  Until she meets the Shahids, who are in Cambridge for a year for Mr. Shahid to finish a book project.  Reza becomes a student in her class whom she loves and protects.  Sirena is an artist who asks her to split a studio and whose energy pushes Nora to begin creating again and to whose own work Nora contributes.

Sirena and Nora collaborate to create Sirena’s vision of Wonderland, which is absolutely appropriate for Messud’s purposes, as Nora’s vision of reality is as distorted and razor sharp by turns as the world into which Alice falls.  The reality of perception recurs throughout the novel.  Nora sees her mother as having been trapped by marriage and motherhood, but realizes after talking with her father that he saw her mother as in charge of their lives–where they lived, when they had children and how many.  Nora worries all the time about how others see her–a failed artist who teaches because she can’t make art, a failed woman who teaches children because she does not have her own.  Fail, fail, fail echoes through Nora’s fears of others’ perceptions.  Fear stops Nora from acting.  When she finally lets go of fear she is pretending to be someone else.  When she becomes famous it is without her permission and without her identity.

Nora is middle-aged.  She fears becoming Lucy Jordan from the Marianne Faithfull song.  “The age of thirty-seven–the first of my Reza years–is a time of reckoning, the time at which you have to acknowledge once and for all that your life has a shape and a horizon, and that you’ll probably never be president, or a millionaire, and that if you’re a childless woman, you will quite possibly remain that way.  Then there’s a period of accommodation before you are formally and officially old.”  But even when she begins creating, it’s miniature dioramas of the rooms of famous women artists, women trapped in tiny rooms destined to be watched by Nora and anyone who sees Nora’s art.  They reminded me of butterflies pinned to fabric and labelled in a shallow box fronted with glass.

Nora longs.  Her longing becomes the filling between the anger that composes the start and end of the novel.  “Longing’ is a better word than ‘desire’: it carries its qualities of reaching but not attaing, of yearning, of a physical pull that is intense and yet melancholy, always already a little sorrowful, self-knowing, in some wise passionate and in some measure resigned. Desire suggests a burning, fervid, unreflective, something that wants, above all, satisfaction.”  To some extent, Nora replaces longing with anger and both perpetuate her focus on what is outside herself.  She longs for something she does not have.  She is angry at some external entity or force.  She still carries her mother’s anger, or the anger she perceives her mother as having.  The woman who lives too much in her head still, as the novel closes, has not made peace with herself and her relationship to the world.  She is angry enough to live well, but she does not have a road map for what that means or how to go about it.  She is going to live well to show others, not to live well for herself.  And that was disappointing.

I am middle-aged.  I worry too much about what others think.  I live too much in my head.  I often do not act because I fear failure.  I got Nora Eldridge for all of these reasons.  I suspect many people will/do.  Messud’s writing was beautiful at the sentence, chapter, and novel levels.  Her characters were finely drawn.  If only she had left me with more hope.  Nora put a tiny golden Joy in each of her miniature creations.  I’m still looking for it in Messud’s novel.

 

Finished 2/28/16

The Daughters–Adrienne Celt

Stories can inspire, create, and heal, but, as The Daughters demonstrates, they can also be destructive.  Lulu’s mother is a jazz singer and her grandmother, Ada, works long hours for Nordstrom’s as a seamstress and then pours herself into making Lulu into a world-class singer.  This is a novel of mothers and daughters in which fathers are absent or not-fathers.  Lulu has recently given birth to, been literally split wide open by, a daughter resulting from a night of passion while on the road for a singing gig.  She has no idea who her own father is, nor her grandfather or great grandfather.  Both her mother and grandmother refuse to name them and Lulu is torn by whether or not to name, to own, her own daughter’s father and  possibly break the curse but risk losing her husband.

The curse comes from a story woven by her grandmother, Ada, to explain the great love affair between her mother, Greta, and her husband in Poland, which produced three lovely sons and a string of stillborn or miscarried daughters until Greta makes a deal with the devil (according to Ada) or sleeps with a local factor man (according to Lulu’s mother).  When war hits Poland, Greta and her husband and Ada’s biological father pool all of their resources to send Ada (newly pregnant by a man she will not name) to a cousin in Chicago, to safety.

Once in Chicago, Ada tries to discover the fate of her family, but to no avail.  To cope with her loss, she weaves glorious stories of their genesis and her mother’s and brothers’ powers (even of the father who raised her).  These stories reinforce the importance of mothers and the bond with their daughters and Ada repeats these stories every day to young Lulu, whose mother becomes more and more distant before finally leaving Lulu altogether.  Lulu struggles to combine the powerful love of the stories with her own abandonment by her mother and, as Ada wishes, pours herself into music.

Lulu’s husband, John, is also a wonderful story teller, but, like Ada, he neglects to tell Lulu when a story is a story and not a beautiful reality.  The masking power of stories breaks when Ada falls dead as Lulu gives birth and Lulu is left to make meaning of it all.

This is one of those novels  that is so beautifully told in the middle that finding a proper ending is difficult and in this, her first novel, Celt does not quite pull it off.  The novel ends before the last page and does not end because those of us who were also taken in by Ada’s stories, and by Lulu’s, are left abruptly in the harsh unsatisfying light of reality.  Maybe that was her intent.

Finished 10/17/2015

The Nightingale–Kristin Hannah (Audio Book)

This summer we witnessed the 75th anniversary of France’s surrender to Germany early in WWII. This novel was perfectly timed to help me imagine the lives of the French people who had to live with their government’s decision.  Vianne and Isabelle lost their mother between the wars, after their father had been damaged by his time in the trenches.  He was unable to parent them and Vianne proved unable to fill her mother’s shoes for her younger sister.  Isabelle repeatedly rebelled and her rebellious streak continues when her father sends her to the rural village of Carriveau to live with her sister and niece, particularly when the German troops march into town.  Before long, Isabelle is back in Paris helping downed pilots escape across the Pyrenees to the British consulate.  Vianne finds herself challenged by the German’s policies towards the Jews, one of whom is her best friend.  Vianne has to decide where she will draw her moral line and saving Jewish children pulls at her heart.  Both sisters become heroines and, as the war wears on, their suffering increases as one is captured and the other is abused by a sadistic German officer.

The novel has its share of women’s lit drama, but as the story wore on, it pushed me to think of how I would respond in a similar situation.  It also made me angry with those in our culture who mock the French as cowards.  My only complaint was a story line with the first occupying German officer that was left incomplete.  I will forever wonder what happened there.

Finished 8/15

Ex Utero–Laurie Foos

The premise of this book intrigued me.  A thirty-one-year old woman visits the mall to buy red high heels and loses her uterus.  It gets goofier from there. Her husband, once he realizes she is without a uterus, is unable to maintain an erection and takes to sitting on the floor naked and drawing outlines of his flaccid penis.  She draws what she thinks her uterus looks like and posts placards in the mall and around town. When she is in the mall seeking her womb, her hand is run over by a woman pushing a stroller and the stroller track becomes a talisman that she rubs regularly.   She becomes the poster child of a women’s group.  She appears on a talk show with a white-haired male host.  During that appearance, another woman’s vagina seals itself.  That woman’s boyfriend, a carpenter, tries to drill, literally, his way into her vagina and takes to beating his erection with a hammer.  The two women take off together Thelma and Louise style.  Everyone seems to eat scrambled eggs.  Fertility is an undercurrent–the strollers, the impotence, the men whose erections strain their zippers with the public discourse about uteri (which spell check just now taught me is the plural of uterus).

I would love to say I understood the book, that I closed the cover and sighed, “Yes, I get that.”  I did not.  It was fun and I think Foos had fun thinking about the way we take our uteri for granted, our fertility for granted, what it means to our identities as women and men.  Maybe because I have recently chosen to relinquish my fertility ahead of biological necessity I watched as an outsider thinking how interesting the rituals of these natives.  The women who began bleeding and could not stop, who suddenly saw her own affinity with her dog who bled while in heat and licked at herself to hide the evidence–this woman interested me because of the multitude of cultural taboos around bleeding and menstruation, but her story is fairly brief and wrapped up almost as an after thought.  I wonder how Foos would have written this story were she forty-something rather than twenty-something.

Finished 8/22/15

The Signature of All Things–Elizabeth Gilbert

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For anyone who has read Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s novel about Alma Whittaker may come as a surprise.  Gone is the whiny, spoiled indulgence of the first 1/3 of Eat, Pray, Love.  Alma Whittaker was not raised to be a whiner.  She was not even raised to think about the divine.  Instead, Alma was raised to be the ultimate rationalist.  Her father’s searing reason took him from the slums of London to a palace in Pennsylvania.  Her mother’s surgical precision instilled in Alma a scientific discipline that left little room for emotion.  Love finds Alma, however, as does lust. Lust, like all of her knowledge, comes from books.  The lab in which she experiments is a binding closet.  Yes, a binding closet.  Lust also finds Alma in the person of Ambrose Pike, whom she comes to love only after he is gone and she has pursued his ghost halfway around the world.

Gilbert’s Alma is an unlikely woman, but not so unlikely for the 18th century.  She is tall, ungainly, broad, plain, and cursed with curly hair before the age of silicone-based hair products.  She is talented in languages and has a wide capacity for categorization.  Unlike Gilbert, Alma’s world remains, for more than half of her life, contained to her family estate.  Then to an island, then a ship, then the city of Amsterdam.  Her body is bound by physical space, but her mind ranges widely, even to the great theory of her day, evolution.  

Gilbert’s writing is precise, much like Alma’s mind.  Like Alma, Gilbert’s prose finds moments of poetry.  Gilbert embodies Alma’s voice so beautifully that we see through Alma’s eyes even as we look on Alma with wonder and pity.  

The title reveals Gilbert’s continuing interest in the divinity of the world.  The signature of all things, we are told, is an idea that God revealed the secret of the world throughout nature.  We have only to look closely enough, to listen closely enough, to perceive it.  

I finished this novel wondering what moved Gilbert to write it.  Why Alma in the 18th and 19th centuries?  The book jacket may provide one clue:  Alma’s “age” is described as “that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas.”  Another clue comes from Gilbert’s acknowledgements, in which she quotes Christine de Pisan and gives special recognition to all women of science.  Because women have always asked Gilbert’s questions, even when they did not have the voices to ask them publicly or for posterity.

Finished 11/3/13

Reading Lolita in Tehran–Azar Nafisi

I know, I know.  Every serious reader read this years ago.  I’ve had it on my to-do list for those same years and was recently pushed to move it to the top of the list.

And now was the right time to read it.  I’m in the throes of empty nesting, mid-life crisising, writing and suffering from the anxiety of what that means and does not mean, and thinking a lot about the globe.  Nafisi’s class project, to create an imaginary space where there is freedom, is similar in spirit to the project I began a year ago with this blog.  To recapture my joy of reading and to reclaim an act that had become a chore in the service of my work.

Reading about her “girls” is painful.  Reading about the deaths and the public celebrations of them is not as painful as hearing her scientific observation of them and of her own reactions.  I thank God in all his names that I have never had to live this way.

I love her magician, who helps her discover herself and her mind.  We all need one.

My one complaint is about the cover.  Nasifi is clear that it was an act of rebellion to let random hairs escape.  When the girls were together, they shed their veils.  Veils were for outside, prescribed and prescriptive.  So why do we see so much hair on the two women veiled on the cover?  These women exist nowhere in the book and every time I picked up the book I grimace before I began reading.  Are we, readers in the West, so soft or bigoted that we will not read or buy a book about the kind of repression that effaces/defaces one’s individuality?  We had to make these women individuals?  It’s a small complaint, however, that has more to do, I’m sure, with publishing and its business than the text the cover encloses.  But I can’t stop thinking of the book as a whole.  Its outside should reflect its inside or else it risks becoming itself a repressive veil.

Reading this book made me more conscious of my reading practice and of my freedom to walk through the streets as myself.  And to read uncensored.

Finished 9/14/12