A Review of Susanna Kaysen’s Cambridge (by Bethany)

Cambridge cover image

Through no conscious design of my own, I appear to have been reading a lot of books lately that walk the shifting line between memoir and autobiographical fiction. I am aware, of course, that to a writer of either of these genres, the distinction is a moot point. The writing process – character development, the unfolding of action through conflict and dialogue, a protagonist who learns and grows, a narrative voice that withholds some information in order to let readers judge the characters for themselves, and so forth – is the same whether one is writing a work that will be marketed as “truth” or one that will be marketed as “fiction.” Like more and more novels these days, Cambridge proclaims on its cover that it is a novel. Have you noticed this? Right now, I am reading Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen: A Novel, and soon after that I will begin to read Mona Simpson’s Casebook: A Novel. Is it just me, or have novels become a lot more self-conscious in the last couple of decades? The twenty-first-century novel is so sure we will misjudge it.

Cambridge proclaims itself a novel, but it seems unaware of the blinking neon sign over its head announcing MEMOIR MEMOIR MEMOIR. I’ll work through my reasons for this statement, none of which is evidence, exactly – they’re really just elements of a vibe this book gives me, a certain je ne sais quoi that suggests memoir. First and lamest is the fact that Susanna Kaysen is a noted memoir writer already. This fact is lame because of course it’s possible for a writer to work in multiple genres. However, when a memoirist releases a new book in which her protagonist at the outset is a six year-old girl named – wait for it – Susanna Kaysen, a reader can hardly avoid speculating that the label “a novel” on the cover is a misnomer.

At the outset of the book, six year-old Susanna is miserable because her parents have moved her away from Cambridge, Massachusetts. They are spending a year overseas – first in England and then in Italy – because her father, an economics professor at Harvard, has received a Fulbright. The time is the early 1950’s, and only occasionally have I seen Britain’s austerity years described so well. To six year-old Susanna, England is a land of scary toilets. The only toilet in the rented house where the Kaysens lives is in the basement, at the end of a long, dark hallway, and it is so high that mounting it requires (from a child) a running start. The toilets at school are not much better, and Susanna is generally resentful of school, where she is expected to learn the multiplication tables by rote and the teacher has organized a year-long unit on early man that requires endless pretending to start fires with flints. Susanna likes Italy better, but it isn’t until the family returns to Cambridge at the end of her Fulbright year that she feels at ease.

There is something wrong with the Kaysen family, and it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it is. The household includes her father – who hates messes – and her mother – whose vague unrest seems to stem from the fact that she is not a famous concert pianist (though she is an excellent pianist and plays at home with such passion and fervor that Susanna instantly freezes up when she goes anywhere near a piano, convinced that she will never be able to play and even a little angry that she was not born with the ability to play any piece perfectly without effort) and also possibly from the fact that even though she is educated and intelligent, she is essentially a “housewife” without a sense of purpose – plus Susanna and “the baby,” whose name, Miranda, is mentioned only once and who is always described in infantile terms even when she is old enough to go to school – and, during the first half of the book, a Swedish nanny named Frederika whose love life is the object of endless experimentation and manipulation on the part of Susanna’s mother. Also present at times are two Indian brothers, Jagdeesh – a Harvard colleague of Mr. Kaysen – and Vishwa, an orchestra conductor hired by the Kaysens to try to coax Susanna out of her fear of the piano. Once Vishwa has become a fixture in the household, Mrs. Kaysen directs her attentions to arranging a match between him and Frederika, a match that succeeds for a while but falls apart on a tragic scale during a cross-country car trip. Mrs. Kaysen also interferes quite obnoxiously in Jagdeesh’s love life. Their social circle is rounded out by the Bigelows: married psychoanalysts and their son, Roger, who is Susanna’s good friend.

Many of the oddities of the way information is released in this book (the characterization of Susanna’s sister, for example) can be explained by the fact that the narrator is a child (six years old at the outset, eleven at the novel’s end). The problem, though, is that the narrative voice does occasionally reach into the future – to state that Miranda will eventually change her name to Jaye when she is an adult, for example. These little lapses – this one and maybe two or three more, none of which seems essential to the book – indicate that the true narrator of the book is not the child but the adult Susanna Kaysen. She finds the thoughts and feelings of her younger self closely accessible – perhaps more accessible than her adult sensibilities, as she never really reveals to my satisfaction what kinds of discontent are at the root of her family’s strangeness and sadness. In my training as a writer, I was taught to use flashbacks and similar jumps through time extremely judiciously. Flash-forwards were even more verboten than flashbacks. If there is a flash-forward in a novel, there had better be some kind of plot line happening in the future that is essential to the narrative. There’s no such future plot line in this book, unless of course you count the fact that Kaysen’s most famous earlier work is Girl, Interrupted, which is published as a memoir and relates the time Kaysen spent in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager. While I have not read Girl, Interrupted, and while it has been years since I saw the movie, it seems to me that Cambridge can be understood best as a prequel to this earlier work. It felt important to me as I read this novel to know that young Susanna – with her fierce likes and dislikes, wild imagination, staunch individuality, and strange aversion to both of her parents – would spend time hospitalized for mental illness five or six years after this novel ends. For this schema to make sense, though, we have to understand Cambridge as a memoir, not as a novel.

The book is organized around a series of places: London and Italy in the first chapters, then back to Cambridge for a few years, then finally to a summer on Cape Cod with the Bigelows and then to another year abroad, this time in Greece. Part of what makes this book interesting is how cut off the Kaysens are from what Susanna thinks of as “real Americans.” Their circle consists entirely of intellectuals and elites: Harvard professors, orchestra conductors, and psychoanalysts; even Frederika, the nanny, is described as some kind of Swedish royalty whose circumstances have been reduced. When Susanna attends a school on a U.S. army base during the family’s time in Greece, she describes this experience as “[her] first encounter with real Americans,” children who “chewed gum – totally taboo in our house. They ate sandwiches on soft white bread, another household no-no: whole wheat, please, or rye. The boys were tall and many were chunky. Most of the girls had breasts, or if they didn’t, they were pretending to by wearing bras they didn’t need. They had jingly charm bracelets with poodles and Eiffel Towers dangling off” (212). Fundamentally, this is a narrative about a girl who is always at odds with her surroundings. Highly aware of detail, she is acutely impacted by what is and is not “home” for her. She seems to share very little of these feelings with her parents, and to me the fact that she is, at least when her family is home in Cambridge, in the almost-daily presence of psychoanalysts yet is never treated with much sensitivity is a telling detail. Even if you don’t enjoy obsessing about the nuances of genre the way I do, there is much to enjoy in this book, which is well written and quirky. The bizarre ending – involving a soiled sanitary napkin and the ruins of the site believed to be the House of Atreus and thus the site of some of the bloodiest stories in Greek mythology – is worth the cost of admission in and of itself. I recommend it – novel or not – to a wide variety of readers.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Reviews by Bethany, Susanna Kaysen | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Richard Wright’s Black Boy (by Bethany)

black boy cover image

Over the last month or so I have sent myself back to school, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the Yale Open Courses program. If you’re the type (like me) who sometimes misses the academic atmosphere of college but has no nostalgia whatsoever for the vomit troughs in frat basements, the long icy walk to the student parking lot, and the fact that everywhere you went there was always someone with a cold who was coughing all over your food, these MOOCs (massive open online courses) are a fantastic substitute. Each MOOC consists of a videotape of every class meeting of a certain Yale undergraduate course (other colleges and universities offer MOOCs, as do some private education companies), and in some cases Yale has even created course packs, containing all reading materials for the course, that are for sale on Amazon for much less than a load of college textbooks usually cost. And the courses themselves are free, as all MOOCs are. I’m currently “taking” three classes: one in literary theory (I’m gearing up for another stab at the Literature in English GRE in April, maybe), one in early medieval history, and one in the American novel since 1945. And the first novel I read for this last course is Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

I had never read Black Boy before, though I have read and taught Native Son many times and have long been aware that Black Boy is the autobiographical novel that gives context to Native Son. At my first high school teaching job, the freshmen were assigned to read Black Boy as their summer reading book. I didn’t teach freshmen, but the sophomores and juniors I taught still remembered it well and seemed to be somewhat traumatized by it. After reading it, I can understand why: the protagonist (who is supposedly Wright himself, of course) burns down his family house on page 4 (in a passage of descriptive language that echoes the burning of Mary Dalton in Native Son); on page 7 his mother whips him so long and hard that he loses consciousness and ends up with a serious infection, and on page 11, after a little interlude containing some of the most beautiful writing I have read in a long time, he kills a kitten with a noose. This novel is nothing if not attention-getting.

From this opening, the novel chronicles Wright’s rambling childhood. Wright’s father leaves the family soon after the incidents above. His mother takes him to court to sue for child support (which seems like a ballsy thing to do, given the circumstances, racial and otherwise) but never sees any assistance from him afterwards. She moves Richard and his brother to a variety of ramshackle apartments in progressively-scarier neighborhoods in Jackson, Mississippi, where eventually she has a stroke. Richard and his brother are split up for a while, living with different branches of his mother’s extensive family tree. Richard is never happy with any of his relatives (though he does pick up some education during these years) and eventually decides to go back to his grandmother’s house – even though he and his grandmother clash constantly about religion – because at least there he can be near his mother, who has recovered somewhat from her stroke but is still weak. Even though his education is curtailed once again, Richard does a lot of reading during these years and comes to see himself as a person whose life is given meaning through language (“So far I had managed to keep humanly alive through transfusions from books” [318], he writes. I love that). He also begins hesitantly informing others that he wants to be a writer – an ambition that troubles people who hear about it, for all the reasons you might expect.

The second half of the novel, “The Horror and the Glory” (the first half is “Southern Night”), follows Richard, his invalid mother, and his nondescript brother (whose name is never once mentioned in the novel) to Chicago, where they escape some of the dangers of the Jim Crow south, but only by exchanging them for other difficulties. By this point, Richard is actively writing, working on both his own projects and the assignments he receives from his local branch of the Communist party, which he joins but quickly becomes disillusioned by (both this novel and Native Son are members of a little-known literary genre I like to call “books whose endings are made boring by Communism”). Richard also becomes very self-aware and racially aware during these years. He blames some of his problems on the fact that in his earliest years he did not come into contact with white people at all. In Chicago, and before that in Jackson and Memphis, he sees black people groveling and scraping in front of whites (one man, an elevator operator, even bends over and lets a white businessman kick him in the butt in exchange for a daily quarter), but he feels incapable of doing so because he did not learn this habit as a young child. Chicago is in some ways less overtly racist than the south, but Richard still has trouble keeping jobs. He is always fired for some vague reason, and sometimes he is given a small severance payment, suggesting that his bosses don’t fully understand why they are firing him but just know that on some visceral level they don’t want him around. Soon he finds himself sort of blacklisted from most of the businesses in his neighborhood, even though many of his bosses admit that he is a good worker. Wright soon begins to learn that even in the north, relations between black people and white people are deeply charged with emotion – emotion that in some cases few people understand. After being fired from a job where his black co-workers were dishonest prompts Wright to recognize that many whites liked to employ blacks whose dishonest behavior tacitly reinforced white superiority: “But I, who stole nothing, who wanted to look them straight in the face, who wanted to talk and act like a man, inspired fear in them. The… whites would rather have had Negroes who stole work for them than Negroes who knew, however dimly, the worth of their own humanity. Hence, whites placed a premium on black deceit; they encouraged irresponsibility, and their rewards were bestowed upon us blacks in the degree to which we could make them feel secure and superior” (200).

Considering all of this, Wright states, “Slowly I began to forge in the depths of my mind a mechanism that repressed all the dreams and desires that the Chicago streets, the newspapers, and the movies were invoking in me” (267), a statement that to me echoes Joyce’s famous line from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Dedalus wants “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” I know it’s just the word “forge” that connects the two passages (along with the general similarity of subject matter), but I think Wright, who is a very self-aware writer, likely intended the allusion. I remember long talks about that word, “forge,” in both my own college classes and in some high school classes in which I taught Portrait. “Forge” can mean a couple of different things: first, it can mean to make something by heating metal until it is so hot that it glows red – to make something under extreme heat and pressure, in other words. It can also mean to falsify something. I think both Joyce and Richard Wright were both deeply worried that their attempts to distill their cultural and racial identities down into something real would ultimately fail and produce only inauthenticity. Later in the same passage, Wright writes, “I sensed that Negro life was a sprawling land of unconscious suffering, and there were but few Negroes who knew the meaning of their lives, who could tell their story” (267).

I read this book a couple of weeks ago, when the two most compelling stories in the national news were the grand jury failure-to-indict decisions in the killings of two black men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, by white policemen. Not only was I reading Black Boy, but I was also reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, which is about a confrontation in the South Bronx between a rich white couple and two young black men, one of whom does not survive the incident, and I was reading Richard Rodriguez’s memoir Days of Obligation, in which race and difference are central themes. I did not choose to read these three books at the same time on purpose, and I don’t have any fabulous insights about our nation and the legacy of racism and the incomplete nature of the Civil Rights movement and violence and poverty and the notion that – no matter what we say – the facts seem to suggest that Americans in the aggregate do seem to believe that white lives matter more than black ones. Again – I offer no insights or wisdom, only the fact that I was reading Black Boy, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Days of Obligation all at once, while also watching the news several times a day in the immediate aftermaths of these collisions between black youth and white police officers – and it was unpleasant and overwhelming and sad.

Posted in Authors, Bethany's Homework, Books Whose Endings are Made Boring by Communism, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Reviews by Bethany, Richard Wright | 2 Comments

Yarn Along

Yarn Along 12.17.14

Sigh – I always feel a little bit like a waste of oxygen when I start a Yarn Along post and then realize that the post preceding it is also a Yarn Along post – meaning that I haven’t posted a single book review all week. But I won’t wallow. I suppose that on the scale of human crimes and sins, not blogging for a week probably doesn’t make the top twenty. But I’ll do better next week, I promise.

I appear to be in the Toddler-Sized Ugly Christmas Sweater business, and no one is more surprised about this development as I. I should have a photo of a finished product or two next week. For now, here’s some festive green yarn and my copy of The House of Mirth. I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but it’s good. Edith Wharton is a favorite of mine.

And look who deigned to sit still long enough to pose for a rare photo:

Yarn Along with Emma

This is Emma, and some days she is the most interesting thing that happens to me. Not so much today – but some days.

Many thanks as always to Ginny for hosting Yarn Along on her blog, Small Things. Happy Wednesday and Happy Holidays to all!

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Yarn Along

Yarn Along 12.10.14

Sometimes I worry that my Yarn Along photos are a little deceptive. By photographing my knitting and the book I’m reading side by side, am I suggesting that I knit and read at the same time? I hope not, because I never, ever do. What I do do when I knit is watch TV, so I thought it was about time that I included the TV in my photo. I never watch TV when I am not also doing something else – usually knitting, though I also often put TV on when I cook. For the last several months I’ve been working my way through The West Wing – for the first time since it was originally broadcast in the early ’00’s. Seasons 1-4 are absolutely transcendent – just amazing, phenomenal TV. Then the show tanks faster and more spectacularly than any other show I can think of. I’m watching season 5 right now, and it’s painful – sort of like turning on CNN and watching real politics.

Winter always seems to inspire me to mass-produce rollneck sweaters. This is a sleeve of a child-sized rollneck to match the adult one I’m also working on. I love this marled fisherman’s yarn. I could knit with it all day (and this weekend perhaps I will).

The book in the photo is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. I’m halfway through and am a little frustrated with it right now. This novel is part of the genre that involves the life-threatening hijinks that ensue when people from different races and/or social classes misunderstand each other; the best examples I can think of at the moment are the movies Crash and Babel, but I know I’ve read books in this genre too – maybe Zadie Smith’s On Beauty? In this novel, I do care about what happens to some of the characters, but I’ve had all I can take of Tom Wolfe’s endless descriptions of people’s hangovers and of his general habit of over-tagging his characters. I’m invested in it and will definitely finish it, but not without some moaning and complaining.

And yes, that is the vacuum cleaner in the left side of the photo. I put it there on purpose, in my favorite knitting spot, to remind myself that sometime soon it would be a good idea to use it. We’ll see if I take the hint.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog Small Things. Happy Wednesday, friends!

Posted in Yarn Along | 4 Comments

A Review of Gin Phillips’ The Well and the Mine (by Bethany)

cover image of the well and the mine

If themes and character types could be protected as intellectual property, Harper Lee would be a billionaire. To Kill a Mockingbird has got to be the most-scavenged, most-cribbed novel in the world, or at least in the United States. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful novel, of course, but it makes me roll my eyes nonetheless because its character types and plot devices are by now such clichés: the wise and sainted parent, infinitely better than the society that surrounds him; the wide-eyed innocent child narrator; the little-understood but seemingly-sinister adult in the community, fascinating to the children and pitied by other adults; collusion among siblings; the curse of racism; the poverty of the Great Depression. These tropes weren’t clichés before To Kill a Mockingbird, of course – it was Harper Lee who elevated them, and now they are taken as natural – almost requisite – elements of a coming-of-age novel.

The fact that Gin Phillips’ The Well and the Mine is yet another reshuffling of Harper Lee’s deck of cards bothered me at first, but the novel soon charmed me out of my annoyance. On the first page of this novel, eight year-old Tess Moore sees a woman enter the Moores’ yard, stop at their well, unwrap a bundle she is carrying to reveal a baby, and finally drop the baby into the well. Tess’ family doesn’t believe her at first when she relates this incident, but soon the bucket in their well turns up a blanket. The sheriff gets involved, dredges the well, and finds the baby, and the coroner later reports that the baby did not drown; he was dead before the woman threw him in the well.

All of these facts, which are revealed slowly over the first half of the novel, disturb Tess and her family a great deal, of course. Her family consists of father Albert and mother Leta – both of whom are wise and sainted, beacons of clichéd goodness in a sea of ignorance and racism – older sister Virgie and younger brother Jack. They live in Carbon Hill, Alabama in the early 1930’s, and their lives are circumscribed by poverty and by the misery of coal mining. By the standards of Carbon Hill, however, the Moores are more well-off than others. Albert owns some land and hires a tenant family to farm it, so he receives income from his harvest as well as from his own work in the mines, where he is a trusted supervisor. Racial tensions and labor disputes simmer in the background of this novel.

The novel’s title suggests that much of what is important for these characters is underground. When the Moores find the baby in their well, they naturally worry that the water in their well is contaminated. They soon deduce that it’s not, both because they drank its water for several days after the incident when they didn’t believe Tess’ story and because the well is drawn from an underground stream whose constantly-moving water is not easily contaminated. Before the incident, Tess called the well “my well” and loved to sit and look at it; after the incident, she is uncomfortable in its presence, making it sort of a stand-in for the Tree of Knowledge in the Eden story. Once the baby is found and its death by some factor other than drowning is announced, Tess and her sister Virgie decide to do some detective work to find out the identity of the “well woman,” as they call her (in this novel, the well woman serves the same role as Boo Radley does in To Kill a Mockingbird). They make a list of every woman in town who has had a baby recently and then scheme to actually set eyes on each baby to make sure it is still alive. This escapade teaches Tess and Virgie a few subtle but important lessons: first, that they don’t know everyone who lives in their town, as they thought they did, and second, that their own family, which can rarely afford to have meat for dinner, is much more privileged than most other families in town. Their sleuthing brings them to the home of a woman who grew up with Leta Moore, and they are immediately aware of how thin and vacant-eyed this women’s many children are. One of the children confesses to Tess and Virgie that their family has had nothing but bread and wild blackberries for dinner for several weeks. Despite her preoccupation with feeding caring for her children, this woman recognizes immediately that Tess and Virgie are trying to figure out if she is the one who put the baby in the well, and she approaches Leta, who insists that the girls stop their investigation.

While Gin Phillips’ debt to Harper Lee is clear, there is one way in which this novel exceeds the accomplishments of Lee’s novel, and that is the plausible use of a child narrator. Child narrators in general are often a bit larger-than-life. Novelists always seem to need to make their child narrators precocious and inquisitive and articulate – probably because adults won’t want to read a novel about a vacant, complaisant protagonist. The first two of these qualities describe many children. Scout Finch and other child protagonists (Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima, David Hayden in Montana, 1948, etc.) are quite intelligent, and the fact that they are precocious and inquisitive is entirely plausible. Most children, even smart ones, aren’t especially articulate, however. The world inside their minds is limitless, but most of the time they don’t have the vocabulary and perspective to render these worlds in words – especially in the moment when they are experiencing something intense or unfamiliar. A relaxed child lazing around the house in thrall to her imagination might be able to speak cogently about what she is thinking – but no one writes about relaxed children, because literature needs conflict and children, like all humans, are more compelling tense than relaxed. All of this is a long way of saying that Gin Phillips’ protagonist is more plausible than Harper Lee’s. Phillips uses a shifting point of view – with chapters told from the first-person perspective of all five family members, so while we sometimes hear Tess’ thoughts in her own words, we also see her from the outside, from the perspective of her family members; this structure enables Phillips to allow Tess to be stunned and tongue-tied once and a while. When Tess does get in a zinger of a line (in internal monologue or in speech), I felt that Phillips had really earned the right to let Tess be precociously wise. My favorite line in the novel comes from Tess’ internal monologue. Right after she meets the woman who will turn out to be the well woman – but long before Tess or the reader knows this to be so – Tess’s narration reads, “I thought to myself that I’d found another person who’d agree that if there were fairies in the forest, there must also be an ugly something that ate them” (153).

I recommend this novel highly, both to aficionados of To Kill a Mockingbird and other coming-of-age literature and to those who, like me, are a little tired of this genre’s familiar tropes. While I’m not sure I would ever teach this novel in a course (I would pick Bless Me, Ultima or Montana, 1948 first), it certainly belongs on lists of suggested reading for high school students and would, in my opinion, make a great summer reading selection. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Phillips’ second novel, The Hidden Summer (published in June of 2014) is marketed as a young adult novel. The Well and the Mine could be marketed to young adults as well, although it’s true that the rotating narration gives the reader glimpses into the minds and past histories of the adult characters in the novel in a way that the typical young adult novel does not. But enough – read it and you’ll see.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Gin Phillips, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

A Review of Allegra Goodman’s Paradise Park (by Bethany)

Paradise Park 2nd  cover image

There is no earthly reason for me to like this book. It’s a voice-heavy, first-person narrative with lots of interior monologue and a semi-picaresque plot and a protagonist who makes a lot of really stupid mistakes. Just to be clear, I am well aware that the sentence I’ve just typed more or less describes my life – but nevertheless, this is not the sort of book I usually enjoy. Its protagonist is Sharon Spiegelman, who when the novel opens is a twenty-year-old college dropout who is traveling around the country with her boyfriend Gary and performing Israeli folk dances in various venues. Gary wants to be more active in environmental politics, so he decides to go to Hawaii to meet an ornithology professor with whom he has been corresponding. His plan is to help with both the scientific and political/environmental aspects of saving endangered birds. Sharon joins him in Hawaii – they plan to put on dance performances to raise money – but he soon meets another woman and abandons Sharon in Honolulu with nothing to her name except her return ticket.

Sharon’s family is in the Boston area, but she feels no compulsion to go home. Her father is an economics professor, and we receive hints that both he and Sharon behaved badly during her adolescence; as a result, neither wants to be in the other’s company. The rest of the novel, then, is the story of what Sharon does instead of going home to Boston – though eventually she does end up back in Boston and settles there, married and happy, at the end of a twenty-year odyssey.

Throughout the novel, Sharon is endlessly sure that whichever random stranger she has met most recently holds the key to her spiritual identity – but along the way, this spiritual quest involves a good deal of romantic and sexual drama. When she starts to date a man she meets at one of the many jobs she holds, she begins going to his Fundamentalist Christian church. Later she enrolls in a series of religion courses at the university of Hawaii. When she makes some hesitant inroads into Judaism, she is hired to teach Israeli folk dancing at a local Jewish women’s society. She lives for a while in an “intentional community,” and later she lives with her boyfriend Wayne, who has no religious or spiritual life of his own, and while Sharon is with him she abandons her spiritual aspirations. In every one of these incidents, Sharon is absolutely sure that she is on the verge of discovering her true self and thriving as that self forever, which is infuriating and sad, of course, since of course each of these spiritual paths hits a dead end.

For me, one of the most moving episodes of the novel takes place just after Gary leaves Sharon. The only people Sharon knows in Hawaii at this time are the ornithologists she met when she was still with Gary. When they find out that Gary has left her and that she has nowhere else to go, the ornithology professor, Brian, offers to take her with him and some of his grad students to study the red-footed booby on some tiny islands in the French Frigate Shoals. The French Frigate Shoals are so tiny that the first thing any scientists who visit them have to do is re-map them: at any given time, some of the islands will be above water and others will be below. Even though she is hardly a scientist, Sharon becomes immersed in the role of naturalist: “Although [the birds] were only two feet high, they did not seem short. We were crawling around at their eye level, and so, to us, the birds had almost human stature. We thought of the boobies that way – just as if they were these white sharp-eyed aristocrats who happened to have red feet. It was as if we’d arrived on these islands inhabited by bird people. And there we were trying to interpret their screams. What were they telling each other? What were they trying to say to us? We were like bird disciples, we were straining so hard to understand” (30).

This episode has all the makings of a spiritual experience: the humbling of the human scientists before the wild birds, insights into the scale of creation, the suppression of the ego: “We almost forgot ourselves in deference to the birds… There was this mystical silence that grew up among us, because we were all listening and looking so hard at nests. And that was my first glimpse of the world, I mean, the creation: the heavens and the earth, and the birds in between. In the mornings we all sat up and saw the sun rise… in the morning light the ocean spread out around us and you felt how the land was just a speck out there in the water, the ocean tides sucking, sucking the teeny shore just like the island was sucking candy. You felt out there under that blue sky and in that sea you might actually be resting in the palm of God” (31). Sharon has less transcendental moments on the islands too: “We’re all impostors. No wonder the birds look at us like that. The boobies’ faces were like kings on coins – so noble but also so disgruntled. Who do you think you are? they asked us. How dare you? I lay awake in my sleeping bag, all alone, and all around me in the dark I could feel the birds staring with unforgiving beady eyes” (33).

Sharon’s ego comes back, of course; it comes back in full force the minute she finds out that she won’t receive credit as a co-author of the paper that Brian and the graduate students will be writing and she storms off to find new friends and spiritual guides. One of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve ever been given – it came from a creative writing professor who meant it as a guide to writing fiction, but it’s pretty damn useful in real life too – is this: epiphanies are temporary. Epiphanies, in real life and in fiction, are powerful, life-altering events, but they only alter our lives for maybe twenty-four hours. A week or two, occasionally, or maybe a month at most. But mostly they come in glimmers, and when they go away, they leave us only with a memory of how our lives almost changed in some fundamental way, but didn’t. This notion could be an epigraph to Paradise Park. Everywhere Sharon goes, she thinks she’s found answers to all of her questions, and her feelings of betrayal and despair when her epiphanies depart, leaving her behind with nothing but her imperfect self and a collection of people she suddenly decides she cannot stand, are painful to read about – partly because she seems to learn from her mistakes so slowly, but also because they are convincing and human and real. This authenticity is what saves this novel from being just another coming-of-age picaresque throwaway novel.

Sharon’s journey takes her to Molokai, where she and her fundamentalist Christian boyfriend help his sister and brother-in-law harvest marijuana; to a Zen monastery, where again she struggles to conform to the expectations of another religious community (and effacing her desires is hardly something that Sharon does well); to a marriage-counseling resort, where she works as an administrative assistant; and back to the University of Hawaii, where she reconciles with Brian and the other ornithologists, meets a feminist professor who helps her out of a few difficult situations, and briefly enrolls as a religion major. She even reconciles with Gary, who by this point is studying in an orthodox religious school in Jerusalem – exchanging intense religious letters and then flying to Jerusalem to see him, only to discover that the Orthodox community he is a part of requires unmarried men and women to be segregated from one another – and of course it goes without saying that Sharon doesn’t like the rules there. When she returns, the reader is treated to the long, poorly-written rant that Sharon turns in as her final term paper in her religion class. This portion of the novel was especially cringeworthy for me, and I’ll admit that I sympathized more with the professor than I did with Sharon, even when he reads her terrible essay aloud to the class and Sharon overreacts like this: “That was my essay Friedell was quoting up there. That was my exam he was exploiting in his lecture! There he was, plagiarizing my work, while at the same time flunking me for it! My eyes went wide. I clutched my notebook to my chest. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe what was going on in this class! All my calm went by the wayside… Out the window. It’s just that I was not a very calm person! It’s just that he was getting off on my failed efforts. Appropriating them. Mocking them for his own personal entertainment! He was raping me in front of a hundred people” (170).

Sharon is not much of a student – and this incident marks the end of her sojourn in academia – but as a seeker she is the real thing, and the insights she arrives at along the way are authentic. I still can’t say exactly why I enjoyed this novel in spite of the fact that I would loathe Sharon Speigelman in real life, though I suspect the answer has to do with Allegra Goodman’s talent, which is considerable. Creating a character who is such an unspeakable mess – yet also so good and deserving of happiness – and sustaining over almost four hundred pages a first-person narrative voice that emerges directly from the emotional center of the protagonist’s brain, while still allowing moments of irony when the reader can detect the presence of a much more rational intelligence that is in fact controlling the action (and laughing at it a good bit too), must have been a tremendously difficult task. Yet Goodman pulls off this balancing act over and over again. Here’s Sharon meditating on yet another failed spiritual experiment: “I’d been good at dropping out, no question. But when it came to tuning in, just what frequency had I been on? As a lotus-eater I was a natural, but as a learner? As a flyer? I looked down at my lap. Look at yourself, I thought. I looked at my shorts. Just look at yourself! Can you honestly say you are the seabird you always thought you were? Or are you actually just a parakeet? Do you travel on the wings of gulls? Or do you chirp?” (75), and here she is feeling isolated from her housemates in the “intentional community” where she lives for some time: “Like there I was, citronella Cinderella, having worked and slaved behind the scenes to get stuff ready, and then I had to stay home from the ball. Except actually I hadn’t done anything for the party except chop vegetables” (136); and here she is berating herself for – years after the trip to the French Frigate Shoals – finally sleeping with Brian the ornithologist: “What had I done? What had I destroyed by spending the night with him? It was like sleeping with your own conscience” (228).

And finally, here’s Sharon later in the novel, considering the Hasidic Jewish community she has become part of and is even considering marrying into: “To [the family she is living with], every little act was going to bring on the Messiah. One by one you took all the jumbled-up pieces and people of the world – then you snapped them together to complete the picture. And that was what I believed too, or so I thought. It’s just that I’d never considered that maybe I was just a puzzle piece myself to slide in place. Just a little bit of foliage. A piece of sky. Nobody wants to be part of the twig on the third tree on the left. You want to be Eve, or the tree or life, or an angel in the picture” (270). This idea more than any other is at the core of this novel: religion never really obliterates the ego. There may be some benefit to being humble and learning to tune out one’s ego on occasion, but the decision to control one’s ego is not impossible unless one’s ego is active and vocal in the first place. The Hasidic community where Sharon has this insight is almost completely communal in nature, yet even here, Sharon detects that each individual takes pride in being part of something great. Their egos aren’t silenced or effaced; they’re just redirected.

This novel surprised me. When I started it, I was prepared to enjoy it because I enjoyed Goodman’s more recent novel The Cookbook Collector a few years ago, but once I had a sense for Sharon’s character and for the voice-heavy narration, I kept waiting to get annoyed and put the book away. It was as if my more thoughtful, analytical side was watching my intuitive, emotional side read the book and kept expecting a frustration and contempt that never arrived. Sharon is annoying the way Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn are sometimes annoying, but the novel is well worth reading, and Allegra Goodman is a writer worth knowing.

Posted in Allegra Goodman, Authors, Fiction - general, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

And I’m spent…. Final thoughts on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. (by Jill)



Finally finished The Goldfinch yesterday afternoon and I’ve been resetting my brain by playing solitaire ever since. No, not the whole time. This book was a roller coaster—it made me feel almost every emotion I can think of at one point or another throughout its seven hundred seventy one pages. But it went pretty darn fast for that number of pages, and I did enjoy it, even when I was thinking that Theo Decker deserved to be shot on the street in Amsterdam by a bunch of drugged out thugs. But more on that later.

When last I spoke of Theo, he was in the midst of drama: drug drama, fake furniture drama, that sort of thing. He tries to clean up his act a bit, and takes up with the youngest of the Barbour family (you remember them, the rich family who takes care of him right after his mom dies), Kitsey. They get engaged, Theo gets off the pills, he comes clean to Hobie about the fake furniture sales, sort of. He admits to having done it a few times, but not as many or for as much money as is actually the case. And then, who turns up? Freaking Boris. Boris and a big bag of cocaine. And a bunch of Russian gangsters. Bethany said that you know there’s going to be trouble when Russian gangsters show up in a novel. I think that there may be a PhD dissertation in that statement somewhere, but I’m not going to write it. So, after a night of debauchery around Manhattan with Boris, Theo learns that there’s a very good reason why Lucius Reeve thinks Theo and Hobie are renting out The Goldfinch. Because Boris actually is, and he’s lost track of it somehow. Turns out that back in Vegas, Theo was fond of blacking out when drinking, and at one point he showed Boris the painting. Boris takes it, and before he can give it back, Theo’s taken off back to New York. So what does Boris do? Well, I’m not sure, exactly. Boris’s resume is kept very vague, but essentially he uses the painting to make a lot of money, but he knows he needs to get it back, for Theo. Because he may be a Russian gangster, but what are Russian gangsters if not loyal to their childhood friends? Boris and his people track the painting to Amsterdam, and hatch this elaborate plan to get it back. For some reason, Theo needs to be involved. The plan goes sideways, like all plans to steal stolen paintings tend to do, and that’s how Theo ends up in the hotel in Amsterdam. I’ll leave the rest for you guys to read. Does everyone remember how The Return of the King was essentially finished about a hundred pages before it finally ended? That’s how The Goldfinch was too. I didn’t mind reading Theo’s philosophizing about his life, and explaining how he has kept journals his whole life and that’s how he remembers so many details of conversations and things, but it may not have needed to go on for quite so long.

By the end, Theo has redeemed himself in my eyes, though I’m not sure how long he’s going to manage to stay on the straight and narrow. I doubt we’ll see any more of him (Tartt isn’t really the sequel-writing type), so I’m just going to have to hope he stays out of trouble.

I guess that’s really all I have to say about The Goldfinch. It is a memorable book, and an excellent one. I recommend it, though possibly people who lack a morbid fascination with the world of antiques fraud and drug addiction may not enjoy it as much as I did. Even I found some of the more detailed drug stuff uncomfortable to read, such as when Boris and Theo go to visit someone who may have a line on the painting, and stumble into some sort of heroin den, complete with an OD-ing college kid. I was half expecting Theo to have to stab the kid in the heart with epinephrine, a la John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, but thankfully Tartt didn’t go there. The trip to Amsterdam I could have done without—Theo is holed up in that hotel for what feels like a few months, even though it turns out it’s only a week. But generally, yes, this was an amazing book. Perfect, no. Flawed, yes. But definitely worth reading.

Posted in Donna Tartt, Fiction - general, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill | 2 Comments