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What I'm Reading
Book discussions with a focus on the writer's craft

Take What You Need by Idra Novey


Take What You Need, Idra Novey's most recent novel, is a stunning piece of work.  Consisting of three complex, beautifully drawn characters, the novel is about caretaking relationships. Jean is a divorced woman who begins to create sculptured towers after she's laid off from an office job, Elliot is the shiftless, unemployed nineteen-year-old kid on whom she depends for help with the physically demanding tasks her art requires, and Leah is the daughter of the man to whom Jean was once married.  In the novel's present, Leah is grown-up, and with her husband and young child, she is driving through the Allegheny mountains to get to Jean's house. The first-person narration shifts in alternate chapters between Leah and Jean, but Leah's chapters are the only ones in a present tense voice, making the time shifts easy to follow.
The distant past is the period when Jean was Leah's stepmother.  They were close, and so when Jean suddenly moved out, Leah struggled with the loss of the only mother she had known. Now, as an adult living in Long Island City, she feels she is still "fumbling…ambling motherless into motherhood" (5). Add to this compelling emotional brew the contemporary rural setting of Pennsylvania, where Leah grew up and Jean still lives, a place where unemployment is high, opportunities are lacking, and hatred of foreigners thrives.  But even after she is laid off, Jean doesn't leave, and Elliott, her neighbor next door, is unable to leave because an arrest record makes him unemployable. 
When the town turns the water off at the house where Elliott lives with his mother and younger sister, his mother comes over to Jean's to ask if her son can fill a few water jugs at their outdoor spigot. The first time Elliott walks into Jean's living room, he sees the steel forms she's welded, forms she calls Manglements, and she can feel his interest.  When she shows him how to buff a rough corner smooth, forgetting to warn him that the too-short cord has no play in it, there is an accident.  The grinder flies out of her hands and into her thigh, creating a gash that requires stitches.
But the nearest emergency room is an hour's drive over the mountains.  Jean is so weakened from shock and loss of blood, driving herself is out of the question. She asks Elliott to take her, assuming he is like any other rural kid and will know how to drive even though his mother doesn't appear to own a car. It's a remarkable trip because of two factors: Jean is in excruciating pain and Elliott, who truly doesn't know how to drive, pretends that he can.
In Burning Down the House, a book of essays about the writer's craft that was an important book in my development, Baxter talks about the advantages of putting two characters who are at odds with one another into a small space for an extended period.  The cab of Jean's pickup is a perfect example. When two people are thrown together without a chance to escape, tension escalates.   As each pretends to be something they aren't, Elliott not admitting that the simple task any other boy would be comfortable with, is something he has never done before, and Jean pretending that his violent stamping of the brakes and wrenching of the wheel is not making her pain flare and her blood gush, the reader feels how raw and exposed their nerves are. It is a masterpiece of suspense as the reader wonders if Elliott will get her there alive or crash into a tree on the mountain. But that isn't the only effect of this powerful scene.  It creates a bond between two supremely stubborn and ill-matched people and towards this end, Novey squeezes it for every drop of character revelation it can yield.
It begins when Jean returns from a junkyard with the back of her pick-up loaded with heavy sheets of scrap metal she'll use to build her towers.  "When I pulled into the driveway with my scrap load, I saw the idle son next door was slumped on the front steps again in his unlaced construction boots, his buzzed head hanging over his spread knees.  I gave him a nod as I'd been doing since he'd started drawing his family's water from my spigot. He returned the nod and lowered his head to his phone. Once I unlatched the bed of the pickup, I felt the radius of his gaze on me again while I strained to lift the top piece of sheet metal" (25-26).
Jean is surprised he doesn't offer to help, and after struggling, decides to ask him outright to give her a hand.  "He rose immediately and shuffled over the uneven grass between our homes.  He had the curved posture of someone accustomed to bracing for humiliation and I realized it was entirely possible he hadn't offered to help because he didn't think his offer would be welcome" (26-27).
This is the first hint that Jean has unusual qualities. Where another woman would be annoyed that the kid next door didn't come to her assistance on his own, Jean is able to put herself in his shoes and arrive at an explanation that feels true.
"I expected him to deal with the sheet metal in a reluctant, inefficient sort of way. But he heaved all three pieces with a swiftness that surprised me. I also got a whiff of his BO and hoped my reaction wasn't evident on my face" (27). When he brings the sheet metal into her repurposed living room, he doesn't repeat his mother's hasty exit, but instead, looks around.
"I watched him silently take in all the Manglements on the shelves, and the ones too high for the shelves I'd left sitting on the floor.
"What is all this? he asked, pointing with his chin toward the shelves and then the workbench. 
"What do you mean? I said. Doesn't your family weld in the living room?
"He pressed his lips together just slightly, not a smile, but not a grimace either" (28).
Even after Jean thanks him for his help, he continues to stand there. "He didn't seem in the same hurry to retreat as his mother had, and he wasn't looking around with the gobbling, awful scorn of the mailman either.  This Elliott had another energy to him, an openness in his gaze I hadn't expected…It caused a fizz in my mind, watching Elliott step closer to my largest Manglement so far—a narrow, totem-like tower I'd left on the floor next to the window that looked out onto his house" (29).
I notice the incremental steps Novey takes to initiate their friendship, letting me feel the depth of Elliott's caution. Because the expression on his face is something between a smile and a grimace it's painfully clear that the prospect of rejection has suffused his entire being. The timidity of that half-smile is wrenching, but the author, very wisely, keeps the full picture of his past in the shadows so that his slouching figure always has a nimbus of the unknown.  On the drive back from the hospital, when he shares a little bit of his story he says, "I got in the wrong fuckin' car two years ago" (63). He tells her he didn't know it was a stolen car delivering drugs, but the police charged him like the others. Jean is careful not to ask for too many details."It felt right and fair for him to get something out of this time in the truck, too—to tell whatever version of himself felt true and worth saying aloud now, driving over a mountain with a stranger, the dusk clipping at the tips of the trees" (64).
Novey's sentences pinpoint a sensation with such remarkable specificity it gives the reader easy access to Jean's private thoughts.  There is the "gobbling awful scorn" of the mailman when he peers through her screen door.  There is Elliott's mother's "hasty retreat" and then there is Elliott.  His open gaze causes "a fizz in my mind." That unusual noun, acting more like a verb, tells us about Jean's isolation.  She is not only an older, unemployed woman, she's a woman trying to be an artist, a woman who has taught herself how to weld by watching videos on You-Tube.  She reads the writings of Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois, well-known artists whom she can quote from memory, but Elliott is the first flesh and blood person who sees something important in what she's making, and his gaze feeds her. Jean might have the water his family needs, but Elliott has the ability to make Jean feel understood.  When the accident happens and the grinder eats into her thigh, Jean tells him not to call an ambulance.  From her years working in the billing department at the hospital she knows she will have to pay an outrageous charge, and even though there isn't a car in the driveway next door, she assumes that surely Elliott will know how to drive.  
"On his jerky turn at the intersection, my leg swung and crashed against the door.  I swore and Elliott mumbled that this was a terrible idea.  You need to go in an ambulance, he said" (39). But even though it's clear to her that Elliott is not a driver, Jean hides her fear, mumbling encouragement. 
They are trapped together in the truck's cab, a non-driver negotiating steep mountain twists and descents, an injured woman trying to keep herself from passing out. She quotes her mentors, declaiming in a loud voice that sculpture is an exorcism, something that Louise Bourgeois stated that she has taken to heart. It is a relief when they finally reach the hospital.  "He did handle the brakes better now, pulling into the emergency entrance and parking the truck just fine along the curb.  Neither of us spoke as he lifted me once more into his arms.  I reached for his neck but gave up.  I was just too limp, couldn't steady my own neck as he carried me inside" (44). 
When I first read it, I paused over the detail of the limp neck, wondering why it was included. Then I saw the image Novey was creating. It shows Jean's complete abdication and echoes with what is perhaps the most famous sculpture in the western world, Michelangelo's Pieta, a dead son draped across the arms of his mother, his head hanging down.  Jean isn't dead yet, but her death is what the novel opens with, and that's when Elliott summons Leah. The image also reveals an important quality in Elliott.  He follows through.  He didn't refuse to take her, and now that they have arrived, he carries her in with great tenderness. 
After Jean is stitched up and released, she says, "I'm grateful to you, Hounslow, I really am…And you know what…I believe you're on the holy squad now of people who've saved an old lady" (62). Her use of the word "holy" affirms the Biblical echoes of that image, and referring to him by his last name, which is how she always addresses him, hides her growing love and fondness, even her problematic feelings of lust.  What a woman! What a wonderfully large and complex character!  Even at a moment of extreme pain, she was aware of Elliott's vulnerability, and on that awful drive, took care to encourage him.
The accident with the grinder happens early in the novel, leaving plenty of space for Leah's story to emerge.  As she drives with her family towards the town she left decades earlier to meet Elliott and see the towers, she remembers her broken history with Jean.   That distant past, full of pain and anger, is counterpointed with the story of Elliott and Jean, creating a rounded picture of a place and the woman who stayed there and carved a life for herself despite the claustrophobia of a small town.
Beware: Take What You Need is a hard book to leave. I'm in the process of reading it a second time.  It touches two contemporary hot spots: rural politics and the desperation of hapless young men who lack opportunity in the boarded-up towns they can't leave, yet these familiar flash points are not Novey's focus, they simply describe the hostilities simmering in the background while what she's truly concerned with is how an older woman who made grievous mistakes with Leah becomes an artist and shares that passion with a young man she tries to befriend.
Novey, Idra. Take What You Need.  New York: Viking, 2023.


The Last Animal by Ramona Ausubel

Jane has an unusual passion.  She is a paleobiologist who believes that bringing the woolly mammoth back to life will stop the ice from disappearing in the Artic.  The theory is that when this prehistoric animal's great weight is once again tamping down the tundra, the ice will stay frozen.  That is the hope among the paleobiologists in Jane's lab who are very carefully growing a woolly mammoth embryo that was developed from the body of a dead animal that Jane's daughters discovered. But Jane, a harried and grieving graduate student, is not a team player.  She decides to strike out on her own with the help of a wealthy woman in Italy who has a private zoo that includes a female elephant that could be the surrogate. Jane steals the embryo.


Perhaps this unusual plot alone is enough to draw in a curious reader, but Ausubel adds three complicating factors named Eve, Vera, and Sal.  Sal is Jane's deceased husband, a beloved man who died in a car accident on a narrow mountain road three years earlier, and Eve, age sixteen, and Vera, age fourteen, are her teenage daughters.  They travel with Jane to all the exotic places she is assigned, because Jane is the only source of stability in their lives, and since their father's death, home is simply the place where Jane is living.  The novel takes us to Siberia, Iceland, and Italy and the isolation that these new cultures impose on their lives makes them, more than most other families, dependent on each other for friendship and guidance.  That is, until Iceland, which is where Eve falls in love and the bonds between them are tested.


What powers this still grieving family through foreign terrains is talk.  They talk about everything, even Jane's project to bring the woolly mammoth back to life.  And as the women bounce ideas back and forth, a body of common knowledge is created that includes the reader so that she too will be similarly invested in the outcome, similarly wary of the moral implications of Jane's actions, beginning with her theft of the embryo.  Vera, Jane's younger, more stalwart daughter, questions the entire project because of that theft, but her older daughter, Eve, is willing to compromise for the sake of their mother's career, knowing that Jane must have a newsworthy accomplishment if she wants to secure a stable, salaried position once she graduates.  The institute she works for is run by patronizing and powerful men who keep sending her to remote places around the world and routinely deny her the intellectual property rights she has earned.


The daughters, who have watched how their mother's accomplishments get robbed, accompany her on these assignments.  They are used to being socially isolated, used to depending on each other.  What powers them through is their ability to be honest. For a contemporary reader, their honesty is not only startling, it's deeply engaging. 


Yet this isn't a dialogue heavy novel.  Ausubel makes good use of her third person omniscient narrator, letting us see, in her lush descriptions of the surrounding landscapes, and frequent zooms into a character's interior, the complexities of these lives and the challenges they face.  But when they talk, they talk in ways that are unusual in recent fiction. Instead of hiding their feelings, their conversations reveal messy, unresolved, highly emotional states of being.  I found this inspiring.  I noticed the different ways that each character speaks, how  word choice, phrasing, and rhythm define their differences from one another.
"Jane sat on a pillow and crossed her legs.  She said, 'I'm done with him being dead.  I'm ready for him to be not dead anymore.'
'I'm mad at him for dying,' Eve said.
'Me too,' Jane said" (83).  
The "him" they are referring to in this excerpt is Sal, Jane's husband and the girls' father and we can see how the phrasing reveals their burdens. Jane's I'm done with him being dead.  I'm ready for him to be not dead anymore, is a distinctive expression.  The mauling of word order and grammar create a child-like version of her very human wish and reveals her desire not to be the only adult.  Eve's I'm mad at him for dying, is a more adult-like expression; she is taking responsibility for her feelings by stating them, while Jane's Me too, again is child-like.  We're not conscious of these qualities as we read, but in a subconscious way, I believe they reinforce the dimensionality of the characters.


In Iceland, Eve falls in love with a man named Lars and with the help of Vera, manages to slip away at night to be with him.   


"At two in the morning Jane got up, sleepless, and found Vera still awake in her chair, scrolling.  'What are you doing up?  Is Eve asleep?'  Vera should have lied, had agreed to lie.  But tonight she did not lie.  'She's with Lars,' she said" (109).


Vera takes her mother to Lars' house where they find the couple "naked under a wool blanket with a sheepskin draped over.  They were asleep.  Arctic summer sun blacked out by heavy curtains.  The couple did not wake up.  They looked so warm.

"Vera turned to her mother and whispered, 'You have to wait in the car.  I'll bring her.'  Jane seemed relieved not to be the one to have to hand a bath towel to her daughter to cover herself, not to be the one to watch her eyes fill.  Vera climbed into the bed and tucked herself in beside her sister.  'Evie,' she said, and Eve smiled.

 "'Hi, love.  What are you doing here?'  Eve was so unembarrassed.  She did not try to cover her skin or excuse herself.  They had shared everything and now they shared this, or nearly did.
"'Mom is in the car.  She knows.  I need you to get up and get dressed and come home.'
"Eve opened her eyes and got up on her elbows.  'You told her.'
"'She asked.'  Lars was awake too, confused by the second girl in his bed...  'Hi Vera,' Lars said.
"'Hi Lars,' she returned, but what she wanted to say was that he made her sister happier than she did and for this she would never forgive him" (109-110).


Throughout the novel, Vera is the clear and reliable witness, the steadfast reporter.  Standing on the cusp of adulthood, she is the emotional center, the repository of hope, fear, and love, the follower who often bends to the stronger wills of her sister and mother. She is the character in this struggling family who is most objective, a child with a true moral compass who mediates the desires of her mother and sister, and yet is never afraid to speak what she knows. In the excerpt above, she makes the decision to betray Eve for two reasons, one is selfish, she wants to have Eve all to herself again, and the other is pragmatic.  She doesn't want Eve to get pregnant and disappear into a life in Iceland when Vera and Jane return to California. She doesn't trust Lars or the intensity of Eve's feelings for him, and she doesn't approve of keeping a secret like that from their mother.  All of this determines the word choice and syntax in the gentle command: "I need you to get up and get dressed and come home."  I need you to do X, is an expression of authority.  The three clauses separated by and that follow it, underscore that authority, showing that she will be patient with the process as her sister removes herself.  And then, after she assumes the mantle of adulthood, she goes back to her rightful position as a child, needy, and self-concerned.  Her Hi Lars mimics his greeting, but then there is an unspoken barb underneath it: but what she wanted to say was that he made her sister happier than she did and for this she would never forgive him. She keeps that to herself because Vera is the only one of the three women who can practice restraint. 


The role of this youngest child is wonderfully complicated, and as the story unfolds, it is her solidity the reader depends on. Amid the swirling, ever-changing vistas, her solidity buoys her sister and mother in a family where the adult is often missing.  The dialogue makes this tension come alive for the reader, letting us feel the subtle push and pull in these well-drawn relationships.

As part of the woolly mammoth experiment, they go to Italy where they stay on the estate of Jane's patron. 


"'What were you two up to today?' Jane asked.
"'Drinking wine eating food,' Vera said.
"'Oh.  A lot of wine?'
"'A European amount.'
Jane said nothing...    
"'Are we grounded?' Vera asked.  Vera wanted to be told what to do.  She wanted someone to love her enough to give her a curfew and a firm talking-to.  She wanted a wall to press against.  'Please,' she said.
"'You're going to have a headache tomorrow,' was what Jane finally said.  She rubbed her eyes and looked at the ceiling.  That was all" (121).
Two phrases grab our attention in this passage.  Drinking wine eating food is notable for the absence of commas.  That Vera names these activities without the normal pause between them suggests not only a sloppiness born of inebriation (we've learned that Vera is always a careful speaker), but a tone of braggadocio.  She's goading her mother.  And the dare in a European amount is clear.


Ausubel's novel reminds me that it's never enough to know what a character says, I must listen for the distinctive way each character speaks  Syntax, word choice, rhythm and tone are elements to be manipulated when a writer wants to suggest the fears and desires that are always hidden in speech. Jane's you're going to have a headache tomorrow is bland and emotionless, a contrast to the loaded dare of Vera's lines.  Her message is: You're on your own. I can't protect you from the consequences.  There is also, in Jane's directness, a sense of exhaustion.  She is preoccupied by other, more weighty things like the birth of an animal that doesn't fit into contemporary civilization, that more properly belongs to a distant, long-vanished era.  As Jane wrestles with the implications of all she has accomplished, it's clear that two inebriated daughters, in the ranking of her worries, are at the bottom of her concerns. 

Ausubel, Ramona.  The Last Animal.  New York:  Riverhead, 2023.

The Pachinko Parlor by Elisa Shua Dusapin, trans. by Aneesa Abbas Higgins


I wanted to write about The Pachinko Parlor, Elsa Shua Dusapin's story about an immigrant Korean community in Japan that runs Korean gaming parlors, because the novel so successfully reveals the long term effects of war on subsequent generations.  Dusapin's approach to this weighty subject  is refreshingly oblique, the narrative style and design so naturalistic and inviting that the story feels casual.  It is a smooth and engaging read as the first-person narrator, a woman named Claire who is visiting her Korean grandparents in Tokyo, fills the hours of her empty days.  She works as a French tutor and companion for a ten-year-old Japanese girl named Mieko who lives with her mother in another part of the city.  Claire speaks Japanese, but she is most comfortable in her native French, having grown up in Switzerland where her Korean parents made a home so that her musician father could perform throughout Europe.  She doesn't speak Korean, the only language her grandmother consents to speak, and we're told that her great grandmother cut out her tongue rather than be forced to speak the Japanese invader's language, so there is little chance for communication at home.  Her grandfather runs the pachinko parlor adjacent to their living quarters and though he speaks Japanese, he is gone day and night. Claire's boyfriend speaks French and Korean, but he lives in Switzerland. 


These layers of place and culture create a sense of absurdity that the reader feels on every page.  The little girl she tutors is so shy and introverted that the efforts she makes to draw her out feel as fruitless as everything else, doing little to assuage our narrator's feeling of not belonging anywhere.  At the job interview, Madame Ogawa, Mieko's mother, asks Claire if she likes yoga.  "I tell her I don't know, I've never tried it.  She nods her head slowly" (10).  Clearly Madame Ogawa is disappointed, but Dusapin never tackles an emotion directly, a tactic that gives this novel its quiet, understated tone and reflects the narrator's forbearance. 


For entertainment, Claire takes Mieko to Disneyland and a fake Swiss village where Heidi might have lived, places that exude a banal international identity, easily shrugged off.    Everything, from the many rides at Disneyland, to the stops on the train line, has a countenance of sameness,  except the Pachinko Parlor where strange things seem to converge.  We are told it is the only occupation the Zainichi's, Korean immigrants escaping the Korean War, were allowed to pursue in a 1950's Japan where the labor market was closed to them.  But the game involving a vertical board, metal balls, and a lever was the only form of entertainment available to the Japanese and by 1953 there were 400,000 of them.  But soon, in Claire's eyes, even the parlor takes on the swirling blur of similitude.


That of course is the point.  The narrator's emotional stasis, cut off from family and friends, lacking a cultural identity in a Japan that never welcomed her grandparents, infects everything she fills her days with.  In Abbas' rhythmically sensitive translation, she floats in a beautifully rendered ennui as the images and sounds she methodically reports, leap out to grab the reader's attention.   And what a strange collection of stimuli they are.  Because Mieko's bedroom is in the concrete pit of an empty pool, the floor her bed sits on slopes to a drain.  Madame Ogawa explains why this is the situation; it is an abandoned hotel and they are the only ones inhabiting it, but the reader, like the narrator, understands it as yet another absurdity.  The Shiny, the name of the Pachinko Parlor next door that her grandfather runs, is filled with noise.  Inside, there is the thunderous sound of tumbling metal balls; outside, it's the never-ending slogan a hawker shouts to attract customers: "Shiny, Shiny, day and night, shiny, Shiny, shining bright" (63).  Sleep is impossible and for Claire, the only way to find peace is to contract an infection that clogs her ears.


What's remarkable about this slim, taut novel is the style.  Dusapin's narrative style is so naturalistic, the reader lacks any awareness of authorial manipulation.  The narrative design is never obvious; events pass, but nothing seems more important than anything else.  I found this lack of authorial manipulation refreshing.  It collapsed the narrative distance between reader and  character, and perhaps it made me more receptive to the final scene. Two pages from the finish, I couldn't imagine how the story would conclude.  And yet, remarkably, a dramatic ending does appear.  It is pitch-perfect and wholly unexpected.  And it is only by looking back that I discern the artfulness of a novel that keeps its intentions hidden.  The Pachinko Parlor lacks bold gestures until the very end, but in its pages there is no uncertainty.  The authorial hand that guides the reader is there, but it never shows off, it's never even conspicious.


Dusapin, Elisa Shua.  The Pachinko Parlor. Trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins.  Geneva: Editions Zoé, 2018;  Rochester: Open Letter, 2022.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Birnam Wood is the new novel by the New Zealand writer, Eleanor Catton, a literary author who crosses into mystery and suspense.  Her previous novel, The Luminaries, was a brick of words weighing in at 800 pages that enthralled me from beginning to end when I read it ten years ago.  That was a historical novel, set in 1865 New Zealand, while Birnan Wood is thoroughly contemporary.   Characters wrestle with climate change from both agrarian and commercial perspectives, and human greed, sacrifice, and curiosity generates action.   I'm being vague here because part of the great pleasure of reading this novel is getting swept into the story as it unfolds, so I won't even give an overview.  Instead, I'd like to discuss how Catton creates multi-faceted characters that are able to deliver whopping surprises. As in any literary novel, these characters drive the plot, so they must be developed with enough complexities to thwart reader expectation and motor us through the four hundred pages of this more average-sized book. 


There are four major characters.  Their personalities are formed from layers of qualities described in a direct, up-front manner so that, for each character, we know the sources of the tension they hold internally, giving us insight into the character's strengths and vulnerabilities from the beginning.  We know their weak spots; we are aware of their flaws, and so, as they step into increasingly complex character-generated circumstances, we worry. 


Mira and Shelley are the prime movers behind a gardening collective called Birnam Wood that's fervently anti-capitalist and anti-corporate.  They create gardens in unused and unclaimed spaces, turning abandoned areas into productive, food-growing plots of land.  They are a rogue organization, dedicated to the vision of a greener, more equitable economy for New Zealand. 


Mira is the visionary who conceived of Birnam Wood and Shelley, her good friend and roommate, attends to its daily functioning as bookkeeper and problem solver.  Early in the novel when Mira senses that Shelley is about to defect from both the enterprise and their friendship, the reader knows that she has correctly intuited Shelley's intentions.


Mira knows she's taken Shelley for granted and wishes she had been more involved in their relationship.  The reason she wasn't is complicated.  Mira has always sought out "the company of men.  Her favoured[sic] style of conversation was impassioned argument that bordered on seduction, and although it was distasteful, not to mention tactically unwise, to admit that one enjoyed flirtation, she never felt freer, or funnier, or more imaginatively potent than when she was the only woman in the room" (51).  As she braces for Shelley's defection, "[s]he wished more than anything that she could reverse her course, convey more gratitude and sympathy, show more interest in Shelley's inner life, confess, as she could still barely confess to herself, that the air of fearless self-assurance she projected was merely an imposture, a front devised to ward off intimacy and to banish her immense uncertainty and moral guilt.  She wished she could tell her friend the honest truth,…that in her own monumental stupidity and self-absorption, she had only just figured out that" (51-52) she needed her and she loved her.  


To introduce a woman who is not only smart and motivated, and then state directly, that she has a seductive, flirtatious nature, is to plant a seed of chaos.  Yet, Catton doesn't stop there.  It would be a simplification to give the reader only these two qualities: her seductive nature and political dedication.  So, she adds an interesting complexity.  As the reader witnesses Mira's self-critique, learning the many ways she regrets her treatment of Shelley, the enterprise of Birnam Wood is subsumed until these lines at the bottom of page 52: "One of the reasons that horticulture held such strong appeal for Mira was that it offered a respite from the habit of relentless interior critique.  When she made things grow, she experienced a kind of manifest forgiveness, an abiding moving-on and making-new that she found impossible in almost every other sphere of life." 


This took my breath away.  It showed me a more gentle and kinder aspect of this ferociously principled woman.  It restored my respect for her even though there was a time in my life when I too could have offered the same self-critique.  (Many young women, I think, could admit the same weakness.) For the novel, it ratchets up the tension.  Yes, Mira is vulnerable to men, but she's not going to be an easy mark.  Her dedication to Birnam Wood grows from her own true and necessary kinship with the earth.  That makes her powerful despite her weakness, but it also provides an insight into the workings of Birnam Wood.  Though it's a collective, it is Mira's energy that moves it forward. Should Mira get distracted, it wouldn't take much to tip it into chaos.


The American billionaire, Robert Lemoine, meets Mira and finds her so impressive he offers financial support to the collective.  The other characters try to uncover his true intentions but he's a chameleon.  Sly and cunning, he takes on different personas to hide his true activities.  The other quality that makes it hard to pin him down is his hobby.  He is a pilot.  And because he owns a plane and has unlimited funds, he can disappear and reappear at will, travelling great distances easily.  In addition, he can spy on others from the cockpit, sweeping over the landscape, noticing anything suspicious.  He is passionate about flying in the same way Mira is passionate about gardening.  "Nothing in the world compared to the liquid thrill of piloting a craft through three axes of movement, feeling the vertical, the lateral, and the longitudinal as divergent possibilities curving away from him through air that was tactile and elastic and textured with a warp and woof.  When in flight…he began to hear his own breath through his headset, and to feel his heartbeat magnify within his chest; he achieved, at altitude, a profound sense of his own proportion, of the sheer scale of everything he could be, everything he had been, everything he was…" (77-78).  For him, flying creates a heightened sense of his own potential.  Just as Mira needs to have her hands in the earth, Lemoine needs to rise above the ground.  This would make them appear to be allies.  But then, here too, Catton is not satisfied with a simplified rendering of her character's motivations. 


Almost two hundred pages later, the reader learns why Lemoine became a pilot when he tells Mira that flying reduces everything below to a diorama.  "Because everything's so small, you see.  It's manageable.  You hold the figures in your hand.  You can see the whole scene" (268).  Clearly, it's the confession of a man who needs to control others.  Forty pages earlier the reader learned about an incident from Lemoine's childhood that provides the motivation for everything he has achieved since then: his business, his vision for the future, his plan for expanding his operations.  That is the seed of disorder.  It's the key to who Lemoine really is, and it tells us why he needs to make a landscape manageable, why he needs to create a diorama.  It's the final layer to a multi-layered antagonist, a man who needs to hide a deeply illegal activity.  That activity forms the beating heart of the novel.

Skinship by Yoon Choi


Few people write long short stories these days and one of the reasons may be that they are so hard to get published.  Many quarterlies prefer to publish briefer stories to showcase more writers.  And with the disappearance of Alice Munro from the world of contemporary short fiction, the novelistic story that she was such a deft and prodigious practitioner of, has become exceedingly rare.  All of which makes Yoon Choi's remarkable collection, where the average story is 35 pages, a publication that deserves attention.
The eight stories in "Skinship" examine the experience of Korean Americans living in the United States, pulled between the two often opposing cultures that frame their lives.  Whether narrated in a third or first person voice, the stories move with practiced and compelling grace, so much so that when they glide elegantly to a finish it feels more like a pause because the characters she has so thrillingly brought to life will not stop breathing.  This is a writer who knows where to find a story's natural ending, just like a cook who knows where to cut the joint when turning a whole chicken into parts.  Her well-chosen details, deft manipulation of time, attention to the sounds and rhythms of speech, whether American or Korean American, are the many qualities I admired.  The challenges each central character faces take on a richness that feels dimensional and compelling.  In addition, Choi harnesses mystery in an unusual fashion, using it not to draw a reader into a story, but to reflect a character's ignorance of the world beyond their experience.  Nowhere is it used to better effect than in the stand-out story at the center of the collection, "Solo Works for Piano."
The story opens when Albert Uhm meets Sasha, a woman who was part of his peer group in the unnamed music program where they were both students.   Albert Uhm never had the brilliant career he seemed destined for as a teenager prepping for major competitions, and instead, is buried in oblivion teaching out on Long Island at Hofstra.  Sasha no longer plays the piano at all; she is married and with a child, and that child is the reason she's contacted her old friend.  Her daughter is a musical prodigy, and she thinks Albert may be the only person who can understand the roller coaster of her child's emotions. 
Sasha is thoroughly American, never having given up the youthful expressions and gestures of excess that once, in Albert's eyes, defined her: 
     "'It's Moore now.  Sasha Moore.  I haven't been Sasha Silber in forever!'  She laughs.
      That laugh.
     'How long's it been, Albert?  Like a million years?'
     'Twenty-two years come June.'
     "He can't quite orient himself, as though both Sasha and her memory have entered the room, and he doesn't know which way to look. He             instantly remembers—witnesses—her slightly antic gestures.  Her rhapsodic, careless way of speaking: ages, miles, forever.  Her habit of    laughing and apologizing.  Always laughing and apologizing" (111-112).
Sasha brings on the memory of Yegor Zorkin, the master they studied under, and that in turn allows him to relive the time when Zorkin sat down at the piano in a moment of instruction focused on Sasha directly, but indirectly, on all of them, and played a medley of music borrowed from many sources to make the point that all music deserves focus, attention, and respect, not just the classical canon.  Those memories unlock others and soon we have a fuller picture of the ossified routines of Albert's lonely, ascetic life contrasted with Sasha and her wild, almost feral daughter who plays for Albert, in a spontaneous and absorbed manner, a Zorkin-like medley of music that excites him to his core.  But is she teachable, he wonders.
The narrative line, which at first seemed straight forward and simple (two friends meeting again after many years), twists and bends with the addition of surprising developments in backstory and the reader watches as Sasha's arrival challenges the precise and disciplined Albert. The wild and primitive being she has brought into his studio upends his careful existence.  More than that, it recalls his student days when he was distracted by the confusing relationships with his fellow pupils, when he felt as though the people around him spoke in a code he couldn't quite translate.  The reader sees how his self-reliance put others on edge, how his severity of purpose and need for precision is at odds with people whose emotions are foregrounded.  Even when they were students, he found "[t]he ever-presentness of whatever [Sasha]was feeling…rather miraculous" (115).
Though the third person point of view is limited to Albert's narrow perspective, it's inclusive in other ways: it stretches across time, revealing his experiences in music, love, and sex and additionally, his persistent sense that he is missing something that others can perceive.  This is the mystery I was speaking of: he feels surrounded by meanings and messages he will never fully understand.  When Sasha says of her daughter, "She's like the next Albert Uhm,"(136) Albert doesn't know how to respond.  "What is he to make of this?  He feels this is complicated nonsense" (136).  Yet as always, he returns to his solitude with a consoling thought: "He does not mind knowing of himself that he is a person who retreats" (145).  When Sasha's daughter runs out of the studio and the lesson comes to an abrupt stop, Albert says, "What's wrong with her"(140) and Sasha replies, "Don't you know?  Can't you tell?" (141), questions he repeats to himself later that echo similar questions asked in different ways by other people throughout his life.
But when they're thrown at him by Sasha they finally breach Albert's fortifications.  Who is he and who is that little girl?  That's the mystery he's faced with, and that's when he knows he must articulate an answer.  What he discovers, and what the reader discovers through him, is nothing less than the meaning of art.  It is also the answer to Sasha's agonized cry, "Have you been happy?  Is it, is it possible" (148)? 

Today A Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket by Hilma Wolitzer

Using an image to convey what a character is feeling.

 Most of the stories in Hilma Wolitzer's newly published collection were written in the nineteen seventies, but the humor and wit that electrifies each one feels timeless, and relative to our present, necessary and important.  They are about the many ways the extraordinary inhabits what appear to be ordinary lives.  Her brilliance, as a writer, is the deft and easy braiding of the internal with the external so that a reader's knowledge of a point of view character quickly becomes intimate.  Not only do we know what the character thinks and says, we also know, especially in "Bodies," my favorite story in the collection, what she sees.  All of these stories are written in a close third person perspective, but "Bodies" is the darkest and the richest in visuals.
Images become the language of the story.  They express Sharon's unspoken feelings in a way that never feels labored or attenuated because revelations, when they occur, are pictures.  They are shape and color and reveal the author's signature irreverence.  Though "Bodies" plumbs a well of darkness, Wolitzer's narrative pace is still light and quick footed, so that in this 25 page story, we know not only what the problem is by page 3, but also that it's one that will challenge the basic trust that Sharon, the point of view character, has in Michael, a man she has been married to for many years.  You're thinking that he had an affair.  Not at all, and that is the other reason I love this story. 
What Michael did elicits an entirely different kind of shame, panic, and anger in Sharon. We are told that as a child, he suffered severe privation in the care of an ailing, sadistic father because his mother, who worked as a traveling nurse, was often absent from the home.  But as an adult, he seems to have emerged from that early abuse unscathed.  He works as a social worker and is a good and dependable husband.  When his mother dies, he flies to Ohio to take care of business and while he is there, he is arrested.  Sharon gets a phone call telling her that he has been jailed for exposing himself to a woman in the parking lot of a supermarket. 
This news, of course, is deeply unsettling.  She flies out with their good friend, who is a lawyer, for the arraignment, and as she contemplates seeing Michael for the first time when he is brought into the courtroom, she wonders if she will experience "a complete failure of love, even of charity" knowing what he has done (111).  That question is posed at the mid-point of the story, setting up the expectation that it will be answered by the end.
But how can such a question be answered without sounding heavy and pedantic, which is everything Wolitzer's style is not.  Has she set up a difficult, maybe impossible challenge for the story?  If she uses a direct expression of feeling, everything that the story has achieved—its mystery and shock--would be lost.   But Wolitzer shows us that there is another way to report on what a character is feeling: describe what she sees.  It is more surreptitious and maybe even more efficient.  And so, from the first page, Wolitzer prepares us for the role images will play in this story.
We are told that Sharon is an artist; her currency is visual language.  Appropriately, the story begins with an image from a Lenny Bruce performance in which he describes a flasher "who opens his raincoat and displays a bunch of lilacs instead of a penis" (95).  (An aside: "Bodies" was published in 1979, before streaming, before YouTube, before even computers were ubiquitous.  Lenny Bruce performances were saved on records.  My parents had one.)
But that image, gentle and harmless as it is, does nothing to assuage her horror at the fact of her husband's act.  She remembers "the singing corduroy of his trousers as he walks, that yellow shirt" (100), but the familiar fails to create a generous feeling.  She tries to minimize the aggressiveness of his act.  "Other men did that sort of thing in subway passages, or in dark alleyways.  The parking lot of a supermarket seemed foolishly domestic" (102).  Hopeful maybe, but not forgiving. 
The story takes us through the process of Sharon getting herself to Ohio and staying in the same motel where her husband had been arrested.  The police found him because the woman in the parking lot reported the license plate on his car and his car is still parked outside of the room he had rented, a fact that, by itself, causes a shiver of feeling the reader shares with Sharon.  Other images appear.  Growing up in a household of females, the first time Sharon saw a naked man was when she stumbled into her friend's parents' bedroom and caught a glimpse of the father she had always been afraid of sitting naked on the edge of the bed.  "In that quick and brilliant moment—she is sure she remembers sunlight in the bedroom—she saw his melancholy in the droop of his genitals, and felt a rush of knowledge and anguish" (108).  Wolitzer takes care to deliver a complete image, giving us the man illuminated by a ray of light, and though anguish is a big abstraction for such a brief glimpse, this is how children operate, they pick up any ragged, awkward clue that will help them traverse the inscrutable adult world.  And, indeed, maybe it has, gaining sophistication as she's grown up, guiding her to this moment with Michael.
Another image comes towards the end of the story.  It becomes the foundation for the final image that will answer the question the story posed mid-way.  In her motel room, Sharon reads in the newspaper that an infant has been born with his heart in the wrong place, outside rather than inside his chest.  "Sharon…thinks about men and how they always wear their parts on the surface of their bodies, indecently exposed and vulnerable, appendages of their joy and despair.  She realizes that she has never regretted being female, as a girl or as a woman" (119).
That misplaced heart focuses our attention and prepares us for what Sharon will discover about herself.  Her feelings could go either way.  But we also know, by this point, that when her husband is brought out of the holding cell, Sharon's reaction will take the form of an image, something we will see with her, that will tell us what she's feeling. 
Is the marriage doomed?  Or will she feel the possibility that love will join them once again?  The image will give us the answer.

Wolitzer, Hilma.  Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.  New York: Bloomsbury. 2021.

On Division by Goldie Goldbloom


I just discovered Goldie Goldbloom's 2019 novel, On Division, about a Chassidic woman who discovers she is pregnant at age 57, when she already is a grandmother.  It takes the reader into the mysteries of Orthodox Jewish traditions while maintaining a strong connection to contemporary life in a big city.  To an outsider like me, the Chassid seem to exist simultaneously in two different countries and time periods, the small nineteenth century Yiddish speaking community in Williamsburg and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the contemporary Brooklyn and New York City that surrounds them.  And because I live in Crown Heights, it was a privilege to be taken into the private lives of people living so close to me.


Surie is at the center of this riveting third person omniscient novel, a woman the reader comes to know intimately.  Already a large woman, she successfully hides her pregnancy from her beloved husband.  She procrastinates telling him that they are expecting yet another child when they both assumed they were finished.  It shames her to wear the visible evidence of the pleasurable, and, because of their age, unsanctioned love-making that keeps their marriage strong.  That shame brings up an earlier shame, the suicide, many years ago, of their gay son, Lipa, who left their home in Williamsburg to escape to San Francisco. 


Surie feels as though her pregnancy is linked to this deceased son.  She sees him sitting in the corners of the rooms she occupies and decides that she can't reveal her condition to her husband, Yidel, without first talking about what happened with Lipa.  The difficulty she has in starting this conversation means that she gets closer and closer to her due date.  Only the midwife, the one non-Chassidic woman in Surie's orbit, has seen what Surie is hiding beneath her voluminous clothes. 

"Surie stirred in her chair.  A wave of coldness ran from the crown of her head down her ribs and all the way to her feet.  She was acting just like Lipa, holding onto an explosive secret, one that had the potential to rip her from her community, even kill her. Like Lipa, she wanted to tell someone but was deathly afraid to do so…. She had wondered what it felt like to be Lipa.  Well, now she knew" (69.) 


Conflating Lipa with her pregnancy is something Surie does naturally.  And though shame is the only thing that links the two situations, it has a psychological honesty that feels accurate.  Surie knows that she will not be able to mother her babies, she is expecting twins, until she understands how she failed Lipa. This merging of the two most difficult situations of her life is irrational, but this is why this novel is brilliant, tender, and wise.  In the loneliness of self-doubt the irrational makes sense. And in terms of narrative momentum, the pregnancy provides the catalyst for Surie to question how she and Yurie treated Lipa.  She tells the midwife that she had a gay son and says, "[I]f I had the chance again, I would bring him home and put him to sleep in the best bed, and I would tell him to bring home his boyfriend and I would tell all of my children and my grandchildren to smile at him and to love him and never to stop…" (126).


Linking the pregnancy to Lipa's death, showing how Surie believes that she must keep her condition secret from her husband until she speaks to him about their lost son, Goldbloom creates the conditions for a dramatic escalation of narrative tension. There is the ticking of the clock as the due date draws closer, the swelling of her body as the twins grow, the brief sightings of Lipa's ghostly figure in the corners of rooms.   And there is the ticking of another kind of clock as she ventures into the world of contemporary midwifery, learning how to be an assistant and translator at the birthing center where she has been hired to help the midwife care for the Chassidic women in her practice.  So, along with the ticking of the pregnancy clock, there is the accumulations of experience as she works in healthcare.  It is another ticking mechanism, drawing the reader into the rich complexities of her dilemma.  Will Surie choose to take on more responsibilities at the clinic and drift farther and farther from her community?   Or will she give the clinic up and remain within the boundaries of a traditional Chassidic marriage?  The life of this deeply private character contains such weighty conflicts the reader doesn't know which way she will go until the very end.


Goldbloom, Goldie.  On Division.  New York: FSG, 2019.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett


In this powerful, many-layered novel, Bennett explores the role of identity in six connected lives, considering race and gender as her characters wrestle with truth.  Some are looking for the truth about someone else and some are actively hiding their gender or racial origins.  This is a novel of ideas, which is a surprising thing to say about a novel that is as deeply and fully absorbing as this one.  Yet everything springs from concept, beginning with the African American town of Mallard, Louisiana, a place where all its inhabitants have such pale skin that in 1938, when a young priest arrived from Dublin, he thought he was lost.  This couldn't be the "colored town" he had been assigned.  In this place, everyone was "fair and blonde and redheaded. Was this who counted for colored in America, who whites wanted to keep separate? Well, how would they ever tell the difference" (6)?
The first central characters we meet are Stella and Desiree, identical twins who grew up in the racially homogeneous town of Mallard.  Desiree chooses to remain true to her black identity, marrying a man whose skin is dark and birthing a daughter who has her father's color.  Her sister Stella wants a secretarial job, and the only way she can get one is to pass for white.  The role seems to come to her naturally, so she chooses to play it in all aspects of her life even though it will mean she must leave Desiree, her mother, and the town of Mallard behind forever. She marries her boss, moves to LA, and births a blond-haired daughter.

It is when Kennedy, her daughter, is growing up that the complexities emerge.  Kennedy feels her mother's tension whenever she asks about her childhood and notices she never gets full or satisfying answers.   Who is her mother, she wonders.  It's not surprising later, that Kennedy drifts into acting and finds she has a talent for it, taking after a mother whose entire adult life is a performance.

Jude is Desiree's daughter, and when she and her mother return to Mallard, the dark skin she inherited from her father keeps her socially isolated.  But she thrives academically and moves to California for college where she gets a job working for a caterer.  It is at one of those catering events that she spots her mother's missing twin and is so shocked she drops a bottle of wine on the floor.  It is a powerful moment, but Bennett keeps it in check because this is the tightened spring from which the rest of the novel will unwind.  Jude learns Stella's name and then pursues Kennedy, keeping the knowledge that they are cousins to herself. 

The tension grows steadily, always building the reader's desire to know more, as the omniscient perspective cuts a scene at a high moment, moving its focus from character to character, widening the circle to include Jude's transexual boyfriend Reese, and Early, Desiree's lover, a gifted private investigator famous for finding the whereabouts of even the most cleverly disguised criminal.  Yet in all the years of their relationship Early never succeeds in finding Stella. 
Place is of minimal concern to this author even though the setting moves from Mallard to New Orleans to Los Angeles to New York City.    Instead, Bennett narrows her attention on another narrative quality altogether: theme.  The theme of hide and seek is everywhere, finding different forms and iterations, and my greatest pleasure in reading this novel was discovering each new expression.  Perhaps Stella's secret is what motivated Kennedy to become a professional actor, yet, when acting ceased to fulfill her, what led her to real estate?  Was it, again, an awareness that her mother was not the person she seemed to be? Here she is at an open house:
"She would disappear inside herself, inside these empty homes where nobody actually lived.  As the room filled with strangers, she always found her mark, guiding a couple through the kitchen, pointing out the light fixtures, back splash, high ceilings. 


'Imagine your life here,' she said.  'Imagine who you could be'" (300).

In the same oblique way, the other cousin takes on her mother's preoccupation.  She goes into medicine, a field devoted to revealing what's hidden.  Here is Jude dissecting a cadaver:

"People lived in bodies that were largely unknowable.  Some things you could never learn about yourself—some things nobody could learn about you until after you died" (328).

Echoes, patterns, reverberations.  This is how the theme plays out.  The original stone thrown into the water--Stella's decision to live the life of a white woman--sets in motion the ripples that constantly move outwards in this riveting story where nothing is static, nothing comes to a resting place. 

I do believe that children have an inchoate awareness of the secrets their parents keep.  In my own family, my mother was happy to bury her New York Jewish identity when she married my German Texan father, and over the years I've met other people with similar stories.  The children always know. 
 Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half.  New York: Riverhead, 2020.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

This novella by the Irish writer, Claire Keegan, is a small masterpiece.  The story centers around Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, as he makes deliveries during the Christmas season in Northern Ireland in 1985.  During one of his stops he encounters, at the town's convent, an ugly truth about the nuns' treatment of the unwed mothers who live in their care.  In spare, sturdy prose that is as rhythmic and sensuous as music, Keegan tells the story of this long-married father of five, a good provider for his family, a fair and generous employer who runs a steady, dependable business making an uncharacteristically reckless decision that will endanger everything he has achieved.  The reader is privileged, in this deeply interior and beautifully observed story, to see out of Furlong's eyes as he drives about town.  It is a third person narrative that chronicles a man's journey towards a dangerous action.   Central to this journey is his backstory.  Furlong himself was born to an unwed mother who worked as a domestic.  He never knew his father and routinely goes through the possible candidates, yet one evening he stumbles upon the answer when he stops to visit a friend and that information satisfies a hunger he's had since boyhood.
You can read the novella in an hour, but if you're like me, you'll want to read it a second time merely to experience, once again, the seamless transition from interior rumination to a final, irrevocable action that will unravel all of the seams Furlong has carefully stitched into his life and the lives of his wife and children.  Keegan's remarkable accomplishment here is the believable, utterly engrossing journey Furlong makes towards his decision.   After he has done what his conscience bid, he walks through the town on a snowy Christmas eve past all of the celebrating people.  It may be the most triumphant march in all of contemporary literature.  And because Furlong feels not just pure joy, but a mixture of joy and fear as he contemplates what might come next, it rings true. 
How does Keegan make us believe this change in a man's personality?  The first thing she does is establish the basis of Furlong's character, the circumstances of his birth and childhood, his role as employer and delivery man, and his orderly family life with five daughters and a protective, hovering wife.  But more important than that, is the quality of Furlong's perceptions.  He's a man who looks out at the world and sees details that a less outward-directed man would miss. 

It is the time of "The Troubles."  Money is in short supply.  People don't have enough to eat.  "Furlong had seen a young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat's bowl behind the priest's house...the dole ques were getting longer and there were men out there who couldn't pay their ESB bills, living in houses no warmer than bunkers, sleeping in their overcoats" (13).
One evening he tells his wife that he gave the young son of the town drunk his pocket change and a lift in his lorry and she replies, "'You know some of these bring the hardship on themselves?'

'Tis not the child's doing surely.'

'Sinnott [the boy's father] was stotious at the phone box on Tuesday.'

'The poor man,' Furlong said, 'whatever ails him.'

'Drink is what ails him.  If he had any regard for his children, he'd not be going around like that.  He'd pull himself out of it.'

'Maybe the man isn't able.'

'I suppose....Always there's one that has to pull the short straw'" (11).
The conversation ends there, but it's a defining moment because it establishes Furlong as a man who can feel empathy and his wife as a woman too focused on propriety to feel the suffering of others.  Though that dialogue may be the only time we hear his wife speak, it establishes her hardened nature, but in an elegant, casual manner, without making a direct statement.  The "one that has to pull the short straw" is all the reader needs to understand her sense of the natural order of things.
The conversation also sets up the essential argument between two intimately connected people, letting us understand that as Furlong performs the charitable act that he will never be able to undo, he is risking his marriage. The great kindness that was shown his mother when she gave birth to him means he cannot turn away from the suffering of an unmarried girl with a baby.    And because the woman who offered safe harbor to him and his mother risked social condemnation herself, Furlong understands he must choose the same path.  He will not be able to live with himself if he doesn't.
Though Keegan skillfully guides the reader, she is artfully indirect, always, providing clues in body language and detail so nothing interrupts an atmosphere of escalating menace.  At the convent, when Furlong knocks on the door, having found a young girl locked in the coal shed when he was making a delivery, the reader is shown multiple levels: the spoken words that convey one meaning and the body movements and facial expressions that reveal the opposite.  The Mother Superior performs a show of concern, even a false cheerfulness, yet there's no mistaking the warning snaking beneath her graciousness.
The powerful last chapter ends with a Christmas Eve walk through the snowy city.  When Furlong meets celebrating people he has known "for the greater part of his life"(111) he doesn't try to explain.  White snow and black coal are in dramatic contrast as he runs the gauntlet towards home.  He has done what he knew was necessary, but now the future is unclear.  Still, he carried "on along with the excitement in his heart matched by the fear of what he could not yet see" (111).
Keegan, Claire.  Small Things Like These. New York: Grove Press, 2021.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor



Do not miss Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor, originally published in 1971, but recently re-issued by New York Review Books.  This stunning novel takes us into the world of the liver-spotted, fall-prone, lonely occupants of a resident hotel in London where well-heeled men and women live their lives out in what they perceive as upper-class dignity, avoiding the infirmities of old age because they are not allowed to die there.  If incontinence strikes, they are whisked off to a nursing home.  Only invisible suffering is allowed, and for most of them, that's loneliness. 


Mrs. Palfrey finds a passable life there among the five or six other elderly residents.  Her days consist of walks, meals, writing and posting letters to her absent daughter, and listening to and sometimes contributing sage or wry remarks to the conversations going on around her.  You might ask, how could a novel with such a sleepy plot and cast of limited characters create any emotional intensity?  Yet this "quiet" novel achieves tremendous intensity because people who assume they are closer to death than others possess an urgency those others lack and it's that liminal state Taylor writes about.


Mrs. Palfrey is well-mannered and socially skilled, yet she is mildly alarmed that she should be living in one of these places.  With daily lectures to herself that renew her courage, she manages to keep her alarm in control.   She is only recently a widow and neither her grandson, who lives close by in London, nor her daughter in Scotland have come to visit. 


Out for a walk one day to post a letter, she falls.  It is a residential neighborhood, the sidewalk is empty, and it has started to snow.  But in the area below her, a door opens and a young man who saw her through his window, comes to help.


"He took her in his arms and held her to him, like a lover and without a word, and a wonderful acceptance began to spread across her pain, and she put herself in his hands with ungrudging gratitude" (25). 


This is a long and somewhat awkward sentence, the string of clauses are linked by "and," which makes it mellifluous until those two hard 'g's in ungrudging and gratitude, break the flow.  They slow the reader down, and the awkward rhythm creates the awkward and ridiculous reality Mrs. Palfrey herself is feeling. She is not a woman who stumbles, much less falls, and certainly never in public, so she is new to this kind of neediness.   But the man rescuing her lifts her up and brings her to her feet, and she recognizes the tenderness that has been missing from her life.  The word used to describe her feelings is the more removed and polite "gratitude," but the reader knows better because "he took her in his arms like a lover" has already done its work and though Mrs. Palfrey is never anything but civilized and appropriate, she has fallen under the man's spell.  He takes her into his small ground floor apartment and as he ministers to her wound the romantic language continues:


"She was rather shocked by the sight of the towel, but this shock came too soon after a greater one to make much difference, and she submitted.  She was completely in his hands and glad to give herself up.  She felt no sense of outrage when he lifted her knicker elastic over her suspenders and unfastened her stocking.  Most tenderly he swabbed her and dabbed it with the dirty towel.  She felt no pain.  Her leg seemed not to belong to her.  He fetched a handkerchief from a drawer and tied it round her knee, drew up her torn stocking again and then sat back on his heels and looked up at her and smiled.
'I could make you a cup of tea,' he said."


It helps that as an American woman in the twenty first century I don't recognize these undergarments.  Knicker elastic?  Suspenders?  But even if I could picture this stocking arrangement, I couldn't miss the sense of undressing and lover-like ministrations.  


The rescuer is Ludovic Myers, Ludo for short.  He is a penniless, aspiring novelist, and as he is always looking for people and situations he might borrow for his work, he has brought her into his impoverished domain, washed the blood from her leg, made her a cup of tea, and then lets her gather strength and composure until she feels capable of walking out to the taxi he hails for her.  Mrs. Palfrey not only gives him money in thanks, but invites him to dine with her at the Claremont.  Scouting for material, and never well-fed, Ludo accepts. 


This is the beginning of Mrs. Palfrey's infatuation.  She lives for each Ludo encounter, her always circumspect behavior belying the intensity of her true feelings.  His youth and his masculinity have revived the ache of loneliness her husband-less condition has imposed.  And the physicality of their first encounter, when he held her to his chest "like a lover," and then tenderly addressed her wound, permitted forgotten emotions to thrive. The language of that embrace lets us see it from Mrs. Palfrey's point of view and although this novel is narrated in an omniscience that takes us into the points of view of several characters, including Ludo, the reader experiences the rescue from the perspective of this lonely old woman.


There is only one elderly man at the Claremont, misogynistic Mr. Osmond who tries to pal around with the male help at the hotel, whispering dirty jokes under his breath and very obviously sitting apart from the women who inhabit the lounge as they knit, write letters, or talk amongst themselves.  Gradually, Mr. Osmond begins to feel "an alignment" with Mrs. Palfrey.  It surprises him as well as the reader.


"During his time at the Claremont there had been no rapport with anyone--attempts at it with waiters, porters, even the manager, but all one-sided, the attempts forced on others, and rejected. Women he usually tried to avoid, but Mrs. Palfrey looked so wonderfully like a man, and had an air of behaving like one.  Trivia (one of his favourite [sic] words) she appeared to scorn"(125).


Sure enough, in this environment, his feeling of alignment with Mrs. Palfrey escalates into an obsession and he invites her to the Ladies Night at the Masonic Lodge where in a blur of alcohol fueled optimism and rage at being a widower he asks her to marry him.  It is a remarkable scene, funny and heartbreaking as two people at cross-purposes, Mr. Osmond awash in fantasies of a second married life, and Mrs. Palfrey, loyal to her first husband, gently reprimands and then switches to a firmer and more aggravated response.  And just as the reader felt Mrs. Palfrey's grateful acquiescence to Ludo's touch, here the reader feels Mr. Osmond's equally one-sided fabulist musings. 


"Mrs. Palfrey lifted a hand.  'Mr. Osmond, I beseech you: I shall never marry again'" (167). 


She can't be any clearer or firmer, yet he pays no attention. 


"'We could entertain in a modest, pleasant way.  Small dinner party, the odd cheese-and-wine set-to.  I've often read of them and wondered why we did not think of it in our day.  Informal, simple... a couple of decent wines, a Sancerre, maybe; or a Quincy--do you know that?  No, it's not widely appreciated'


"He seemed to be talking against disappointment, obstructing her. Filibustering.


"'And a red one...you can leave that to me.  And the cheeses, no old Claremont mousetrap or chalky Camenbert for us.  Black Diamond with a bite in it, a wedge of Brie, half a Stilton if we can run to it'"(168-9).


Taylor's blending of two vehemently opposed viewpoints in one dialogue is masterful and as in the scene with Ludo, the reader feels the claustrophobia between two people who are physically close, but miles apart in their objectives.  To reveal such opposed intentions underneath a surface of polite exchanges means that the writer has achieved transparency.  We can see that words and actions don't mean what they're supposed to mean because underneath, the inventive mind is creating a great, billowing fantasy.  First it was Mrs. Palfrey with Ludo, and then it is Mr. Osmond with Mrs. Palfrey. 


Because Elizabeth Taylor creates scenes that reveal the raging, raw desire below polite conversation, the reader is face to face with the grim realities of old age.  It is not a "quiet" novel.  Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont is about the madness of the restrained and civilized mind.   


At the beginning of their evening together, when  Mr. Osmond and Mrs. Palfrey drove off from the Claremont in a taxi, two separate people with their private histories, one was prepared with a marriage proposal, the other prepared to submit to a tedious evening, the jealous Mrs. Post stood on the porch and waved goodbye.


"Mr. Osmond looked out from the cab and raised a hand vaguely.  'I thought for a moment she might have a bag of confetti,' he said, then blushed, unnoticed"(162).


It is another Britishism, like knickers held up by suspenders. In England apparently, they shower newlyweds with confetti, not rice.


Taylor, Elizabeth.  Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.  New York: NYRB Classic, 2021.