Friday, July 11, 2014

Stages of Life

Late in Tessa Hadley's Clever Girl, main character Stella muses that “the highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you”. She is certainly talking about herself. Each of the book's ten chapters describes what 'befell' Stella in a period of her life, from her childhood with a single mother in postwar Bristol England in the early 1960's, to her own single motherhood and commune life in the 70's, to her married middle age. (If you are a New Yorker reader you may recognize some of the early chapters, which appeared there as short stories). Although Stella can be clever, she is often the victim rather than the driver of her fate. She somehow manages to be impulsive and passive at the same time, and the result is a life that lurches forward with plenty of wrong turns.

I am often annoyed with passive characters (I had that problem with “The Flamethrowers”), but Stella is so clear-eyed and honest about her mistakes that I grew to admire her. Hadley's prose has a lot to do with that. It is crisp and concise, not at all showy, but sharply observant, and by the end incidents that seemed isolated and unconnected form a cohesive portrait.

Stella is not always clever, but she does have the good sense to read great literature to keep her sanity when her life is chaotic. You've got to like a girl for that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Act II

What if the most exciting part of your life occurs before you're old enough to appreciate it? In some ways that's what happened to Jules Jacobson in Meg Wolitzer's “The Interestings” (See my blog). For Joan Joyce in Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me it comes when, after she has slavishly devoted her childhood and adolescence to ballet, she is accepted into a company and moves to New York. There she confronts what must be the case for many talented young people – she is very good but she will never be great. And she meets someone who is great – the charismatic Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov. Improbably, he chooses Joan to help him defect, and for a time they are lovers and she can bask in his reflected glory.

But when the relationship inevitably fails, she chooses a very different Act II – marriage to her high school sweetheart, a child, and a new life in a Southern California suburb. As Joan struggles to let go of her perfectionism her husband Jacob struggles to make her content in this new life. When their son displays unusual talent as a dancer, Joan is drawn back into the dance world.

OK, I think I'm making this sound like a soap opera. But it's much more nuanced than that. Shipstead examines some universal themes – hopes and disappointments, ambition and envy. She shows the dangers when parents attempt to live through their children's lives. In addition, although I know only a modest amount about ballet, I thought Shipstead did a terrific job of describing the ballet world – the tedium and physical pain of the endless practice, the subtle but powerful differences between a competent dancer and an electrifying one. She captures the joy and pain of short-lived success at a young age and its long term effects on the life that follows.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Summer Friendships

Is summer camp a rite of passage? If so, it's one I missed. But for the six characters in Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, the bond they form in the 70's at a summer arts camp informs their lives for the next three decades. For Julie Jacobson, who arrives in camp as a suburban nonentity and leaves as 'Jules' with five sophisticated urban new best friends, the camp experience is especially transformative.

The camp has given them all the sense that they are talented and special, destined for extraordinary lives. In the power center of the six are the Wolf siblings Ash (sister) and Goodman (brother). Children of privilege, charismatic, living in Manhattan, they represent for Jules all that she admires and aspires to. But success comes instead to Ethan, the gawky nerd, when he creates a Simpsons-like animated series that brings him artistic and financial success. His marriage to Ash gives her the money and prestige to create a career in feminist theater.

And Jules is jealous. Wolitzer deftly and humorously explores how friendships evolve when success does not bless all equally. She creates no monsters, but gives each character a believable arc in the journey to maturity. More importantly, Wolitzer tracks the ebb and flow of the friendships over a thirty year span with a nuanced hand. She paints them as complicated, conflicted and, yes, interesting.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Texas Saga

Wow, this is not my kind of book. The Son, by Philipp Meyer, is a sprawling, multi-generational saga set in Texas and spanning over 160 years, replete with such standard Western elements as cowboys, Indians, cattle, oil, death, greed, betrayal - not exactly in my wheelhouse. Yes, I loved “Lonesome Dove” - not multi-generational but certainly a saga – but so often books in this genre fall into the cliches of the strong, silent cowboy, the noble savage, the patient wife, the money-grubbing oilmen, the romanticized view of the Old West. So I took advantage of Kindle's option to sample the first few chapters before deciding if it's worth buying. And let me just say that when I finished that sample I could not push the Buy Book button fast enough. I would say those early chapters were hair-raising, but, given that they involve Comanches attacking a homesteading family, that would be a little too literal.

The book's chapters alternate in three different voices. Centenarian Eli McCullough, patriarch of the family, speaking to a WPA recorder, narrates the story of his long and eventful life, beginning with his abduction by the aforementioned Comanches. His son Peter's story is told by entries in his diaries. They reveal a man who possesses the moral compass his father lacks, but who is powerless against the dogged ruthlessness that allows Eli to build his empire. Eli's great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne has inherited his greed and determination, even his brutality, but at the start we see her as an eighty-six year old lying helpless on the floor in her mansion, and even as she unfolds the events of her life, we sense that she has sown the seeds of her own destruction.

This is a long, rich, powerful story that avoids every stereotype. There are no heroic cowboys, no brave Rangers, the Indians are noble and they are savage, the strong steal from the weak. The three narrative perspectives eventually merge into a complicated tapestry of Texas history.