A week ago Donald Trump was elected President. A week ago I put out an urgent plea for book suggestions that would give my mind somewhere else to be. The same day as my request, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time arrived for me to review. I won’t claim to believe in book-fate*, but it sort of felt like book-fate.
It wasn’t book-fate. It was a great read, yes. Continue reading
For years I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden every spring. I read it in the spring because its setting was the lush Salinas valley (okay – “Eden”); I loved it because it held the idea that we can choose the direction of our life. (I also probably loved it because it was one of the first books I read during the end of highschool/undergrad that I recognized – on my own! – the way the book was artfully (though not subtly in this case) making meaning: all of the A names are good! The C names evil!). I wanted to believe then (just as I do now) that we humans can make choices (within the constraints of our circumstances…).
Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (as the title suggests)also explores this idea of the limits of choice. The novel follows the marriage of Lotto (short for Lancelot – as if we needed the reminder that the name of characters signifies something about their thematic role) and Mathilde as they navigate a life of literal and figurative theatre: he is a playwright, they both perform for the world and one another. Attempting to be on the stage of life what they think will earn them the most love (and applause), eschewing honesty for its risk: loss. The novel did not succeed (for this reader) in bringing anything new to the idea of a fated life or one full of intention. It plays around with the ways deception (both the explicit lie and the untold truth) frustrates and enables choice with some interest, but for the most part circles familiar territory.
In its form it recalls Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train in a sort of repressed hysteria of women-can’t-be-trusted and the self-satisfied triumph of revealing as much in a formal break in narrative voice midway through the text. The first half of the novel gives us a third person limited on Lotto: his love for Mathilde, his tortured relationship with his mother and family inheritance, his need for approval and adoration. The second half brings us something like a Gone Girl explosion. Mathilde is not what she seems! Women are mostly temptress, seductress whores unless they are beacons of goodness (*cough* another East of Eden parallel…). Under the calm exterior of every woman is a roiling example of evil incarnate and barely controlled fury. Throughout both section the narrator/authorial voice interrupts in parentheses to let us know what is really going on – the playwright inserting the intended reading. It is, at moments, a compelling device, however it is unevenly deployed (almost as though it’s been forgotten at some points and at others with little effect except to be novel). I suppose that’s my complaint about the form of the novel: it reads like a overly workshopped story, intent on being taken seriously, a little too satisfied with the creativity of its changing narrative voices.
Unlike Gone Girl there’s merit in this novel. There are interesting ideas about choice and deception, and moments of great writing and formal play. The caveat is that you have to muck about with a bunch of obvious Symbols and handwringing Theme for those moments. A good one to take on a plane or to the beach in that it reads quickly and requires very little of the reader. Plus there’s a bazillion sex scenes. Because you know, women. They’re so sexy. And furious.
Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs opens with the forty three year old Nora Eldridge describing her rage. Anger at a lifetime of aiming to please others and of diminishing her desires, but more importantly anger that the promises made to her by life – becoming an artist, having a child, attaching to a significant partner – are not realized. As much as she is angry that these promises aren’t realized, she’s angry that she wants them in the first place. Anger that she is relegated to the position of ‘woman upstairs’ (a frequent refrain in the novel) who subsumes her desires and is thought by the outside world to have no desires in the first place.
From this opening of anger the novel wheels back five years to Nora’s first person description of her encounter with the Shahid family – Reza, Sirena and Skandar. Encounter seems too light a word for the intense relationships that unfold between Nora and each member of the family, and Nora and the family as a unit. Pulled together by art Sirena and Nora push one another artistically and in Sirena Nora sees the example of the life she wants and feels entitled to lead. Nora’s love for the family is as much a love for its individual members as it is for the promise of this life that she should be leading, but is continually and perpetually left out.
Jealousy is portrayed with such deft complexity in this novel as it is never named – or only ever fleetingly – as such. For Nora it’s not that she overtly desires and covets (though she does) the particular pieces of the Shahid life, it’s that she has actively rejected the opportunity to have such a life herself – actively chosen not to take it for hope of something more, or better, of deeper, or because she thinks she should.
It is in some ways a slow novel, and at times I found myself losing patience with Nora. I anticipated the climactic revelation of the rage (the explanation for which the opening chapter promises), but it wasn’t until the final chapter that I realized with what urgency I wanted the reasons for her anger to be made clear. It was a gripping final scene and is well worth the slower development of character.