I first read Sophie’s Choice the summer after I graduated from college. I don’t know why I waited so long. I had spent large portions of my childhood compulsively reading Holocaust memoirs. My mother, a children’s librarian, made phone calls and drove me to libraries in other towns to find more. I had a strong preference for memoirs over fiction because I knew the narrator would survive. Almost everyone she loved would die, but she would live and eventually write the book I held in my hands.
In Sophie’s Choice, the narrator lives, but he’s not a Holocaust survivor. Stingo—an aspiring young novelist—is a white Protestant Southerner racked with guilt over slavery, the continuing subjugation of black people in his home state of Virginia, and the fact that although he enlisted to fight in World War II, he did so mainly to fight the Japanese, a foe characterized by Americans in a distinctly racist way. He meets Sophie, a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz, in Brooklyn after the war.
Who was Stingo to write about the Holocaust, to tell Sophie’s story? And who was I, a Catholic growing up in a Boston suburb in the 1980s, to devour the distinctly Jewish stories told in the memoirs I read, to dwell on them as I did? I recognized in Stingo a shared, possibly inappropriate interest.
The affair in Lorrie Moore’s story, “How to Be an Other Woman,” starts with a meet cute on a bus: “A minute goes by and he asks what you’re reading. It is Madame Bovary in a Doris Day biography jacket.” It’s a clever description of the story itself, which like many of the stories in the collection, Self-Help, is written in the second person. It’s considerably more playful than Madame Bovary and doesn’t end in suicide, but gives serious consideration to the trials of adultery. Unlike Flaubert’s protagonist, Moore’s is not married. She finds out after the affair is already underway that her lover is married. She’s been duped into mistress-hood.
When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.
You walk differently. In store windows you don’t recognize yourself; you are another woman, some crazy interior display lady in glasses stumbling frantic and preoccupied through the mannequins. In public restrooms you sit dangerously flat against the toilet seat, a strange flesh sundae of despair and exhilaration, murmuring into your bluing thighs: ‘Hello, I’m Charlene. I’m a mistress.’
I am so into Ann Patchett right now. Is it hip to be into Ann Patchett? Is it edgy? No. It’s book-clubby. It’s suburban-mommy. My book club of suburban moms met last night and discussed Patchett’s Commonwealth. When we chose it, we laughed a little about what an obvious pick it was. Suburban moms are often brutally self-aware. Ann Patchett is, too.
When I recently recommended Commonwealth to a friend I used to work with at a bookstore back in our younger, edgier days, she replied, “I haven’t read it, but I gave it to my mom for Christmas.” There you have it. It was my own mom who introduced me to Patchett with a copy of Bel Canto. All of her librarian friends had loved it. It had a book club discussion guide at the end. I rolled my eyes for months before I bothered to read it, only to find that I loved it, too. I was awestruck by the floating, omniscient narrative which would change mid-sentence and still remain fluid and easy to follow.
Like many of Alice Munro’s stories, her Christmas stories are occupied with work and explore the subtleties of how work defines identity. Of the three stories I’ll discuss, “The Turkey Season” (1980) is the most explicitly about Christmas, ending with a snowy tableau on Christmas Eve. But the major function of Christmas in the narrative is to create demand for Christmas turkeys, which creates the need for turkey gutters, providing the narrator—a girl of fourteen—with her first job.
Inside the Turkey Barn, she learns about how people in her town are categorized—and what it means when people don’t fit into any of the accepted categories. Although she’s from the place, a small town in Ontario, she already knows she doesn’t fit in:
Work, to everybody I knew, meant doing things I was no good at doing, and work was what people prided themselves on and measured each other by. (It goes without saying that the things I was good at, like schoolwork, were suspect or held in plain contempt.)
I recently went with my husband to a concert. The artist we saw writes gut-wrenching songs. His albums are full of fascinating characters and their stories, his voice invites the listener in, and he and his band put on a great show. But I got restless about half way through. “It’s just so masculine,” I said to my husband, and not long after that the inevitable guitar solo tradeoffs began.
I thought of a line from a talk Jill Soloway gave in September at the Toronto Film Festival, titled “The Female Gaze.” She describes sports as “men watching men do things that men like to watch men do.” These solos, and the way the two men stood there, guitar to guitar—locked in a competition that was more than a little homoerotic and that generated music that seemed utterly devoid of feeling—were not for me. I admit I was already on edge. Just a few days earlier, women had heard something that wasn’t for us—the misogynistic and explicit remarks Donald Trump made to Billy Bush on Access Hollywood.
All of this also made me think of Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay, “On Pandering,” which was widely circulated at about this time last year.
As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently . . . since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.
Last week my friend’s mother died, with brutal speed, of cancer. Ten years ago, my father died of a neurological disease so drawn out and cruel that we all wished for its end. Parents die, usually before their children, and so both of these deaths were inevitable in one way or another. But as the narrator of William Maxwell’s novella, So Long, See You Tomorrow, says of his mother’s death, “the idea that kept recurring to me…was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.”
The narrator is ten when his mother dies of influenza during the epidemic of 1918. It’s an event from Maxwell’s own life. The story of her death is told in chapter two, and the narrator is defined by it. His father and older brother are distant and never speak to him about their shared loss. The book is ostensibly about a lurid murder that occurred in the narrator’s town, committed by the father of a boy he once knew. But his mother’s death permeates the novella. He spends half the book imagining the story of the crime, but in the final chapter we find him lying on an analyst’s couch.
One of the greatest challenges of writing a novel is choosing where to begin it. Choosing where to end it is also important (or so I’ve been told). But even once a writer makes those big decisions, the novel is fraught with similar choices at the micro level. Where does each chapter begin and end? Where should the story pick up after a break in the chapter? And more to the point, is there any way to avoid the exercise of writing the boring parts and then cutting them out later?
Tessa Hadley’s novel, Clever Girl, provides a master class in choosing what to skip. At the end of each chapter a large amount of time passes—a year or two or four or fifteen. Some of the most dramatic events of the narrator’s life occur in the spaces between chapters.
I finished reading the book for the first time just before I saw Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, and I was struck by their similarities, though one begins with a boy in Texas in 2002 and the other begins with a girl in Bristol, England in the 1960s. Hadley covers forty-two years of Stella’s life in 250 pages, divided into ten chapters. Linklater spans twelve years of Mason’s life in just under three hours, divided into twelve sections.