Foostering: A review of NORA WEBSTER, by Colm Tóibín

Review: NORA WEBSTER, by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, 2014). 237 pp.

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(This book review originally ran in the Boston Globe, October 10, 2014)

Colm Tóibín’s new novel, “Nora Webster,” is simply a quiet, microscopically-observed character study of a recently widowed woman in the small Irish town of Wexford in the late 1960s, but as Tóibín proved in previous novels “Brooklyn” and “The Testament of Mary,” the emotional lives of ordinary women can contain as much drama as any tale of war.

We meet Nora just after she has lost her husband, Maurice, a respected local teacher, to a painful illness. She is coping not only with her own grief, but that of her four children. Nora is also endeavoring to hold on to her only recently achieved financial stability; Nora’s mother had been a domestic servant, and Nora is grateful for “the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom, once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read . . . [t]he day belonged to her.” With Maurice gone, Nora knows she must return to work in the office job she held before her marriage. “Now her day was to be taken from her,” she thinks. “Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.”

Nora lives in a world of female surveillance — daughters, sisters, aunts, neighbors, nuns — all watching her actions, her outbursts, any changes in routine in Nora’s newly-widowed life. The book opens on just such a scene: a neighbor knocking on Nora’s door, paying her respects, checking in. “You must be fed up of them,” another neighbor — a man — says: “Just don’t answer the door,” he advises. “That’s what I’d do.” But this is exactly what Nora cannot do, despite that all she craves is solitude, privacy. As a woman, Nora cannot shut the door on the women who watch her without risking her reputation. In this small town, a woman choosing to be alone and independent is the ultimate transgression. “Your mother was the same,” a busy-body nun tells Nora. “It was the pride, or the not liking people knowing her business, that made her difficult. And that did her no good.”

Although the plot of “Nora Webster’’ concerns a widow’s quiet but determined path to independence and personal fulfillment, the story is really that of Nora’s dramatic emotional life roiling beneath her calm surface. Readers who loved (or loved to hate) Elizabeth Strout’s peevish heroine Olive Kitteridge will appreciate the vinegar-tinged humor and pathos of Nora Webster, too.

We follow Nora as she finds a new way to be in this “world filled with absences.” One day she finds herself staring at a record player, transfixed. As the clerk plays a Dvorak recording for her, “[w]hat she felt now more than anything was a sadness that she had lived her life until now without having heard this.” Yet eventually Nora finds the strength to pursue her love of music even to the point of taking singing lessons, literally finding her voice for the first time as a grown woman.

Nora is aware, in a way others around her seem not to be, of the numberless expectations of women in her society. As the men in the house make themselves comfortable, she notices that her mother and sister “hardly ever sat down . . . [they were] always bustling about . . . their mother disapproved of women sitting down when there was still work to do.” Nora has a word for this: “foostering.”

In one of her many silent forms of rebellion, “[a]ll her married life Nora had made sure that she stayed sitting down for as long as possible each evening once the washing-up after tea had been completed.”

Set against the background of the early days of the Troubles, Nora finds herself and her country awakening to a new and uncertain future. A deeply moving portrait of the flowering of a self-liberated woman, “Nora Webster’’ tells the story of all the invisible battles the heart faces every day.

Everyone Dies (not a spoiler!): Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES

71901109 Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger ca. 1530. Chalk on paper. The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

There Are No Endings

A review of WOLF HALL (2009) and BRING UP THE BODIES (2012) by Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt & Co.

This summer I fell in love with an old man. He had a tough childhood, left home early and took off for Italy and France, where he somehow talked his way into a series of better and better positions, despite having never gone to school. He learned several languages; people said he could recite the entire New Testament from memory. That wasn't what impressed me. What I loved about him was his sense of humor, his sense of absurdity. He was enormously ambitious and didn't try to hide it and yes, he was ambitious for money but mostly he wanted power. Not the flashy kind of power — he didn't want to be King — but the real power that comes from working the levers behind the scenes. As he - Thomas Cromwell, the hero of Mantel's genius novels WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, puts it:

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

Most critics read these books a few years back, when they were first published. It took me three tries to get into WOLF HALL and it's not that they're difficult books, exactly, but they are so much their own thing, nearly their own genre - the super-historical super-novel - that I think I just needed to make a mental switch. And once I did, that was it: two weeks of solid reading (about 11oo pages between the two books) that I wished would never, ever end.

Mantel is telling the story of Thomas Cromwell and his role as advisor to King Henry VIII of England in the early 1500s. What most of us know about this period is Henry's deadly sequence of marriages and the supposed heroism of Thomas More, the Chancellor who refused to give Henry permission to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mantel's is a completely different vision, with Thomas More as the priggish fundamentalist eager to torture and kill those who dared to read the Bible in English (as opposed to Latin) and Cromwell as More's progressive, surely-there's-a-reasonable-solution-to-all-the-world's-problems foil and, eventually, successor (More was executed for treason with Cromwell's help in 1535).

Cromwell is no angel, of course, but he has a few things More lacks: a sense of proportion; a sense of humor; a lack of fanaticism; intellectual curiosity. Here's Mantel's version of Cromwell, musing on his rival Thomas More:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope."

I don't think it's possible to fall in love with these two incredible novels without also falling in love with Cromwell. Even as he leads Anne Boleyn to her death, we walk with him, right up to the edge because, like King Henry, we trust Cromwell. Mantel's description, which is essentially Cromwell's perspective, of the execution of Anne Boleyn is as intimate, devastating, and surprising as we have been led to expect by this point in the novels. This is Anne with her executioner:  "Silent, she steadies herself against his shoulder, leans into him: intent, complicit, ready for the next thing they will do together, which is kill her."

Yes, Anne Boleyn dies. But we knew that. And we know Cromwell eventually has his day, too (though I try to put that out of my consciousness even now). EVERYONE DIES. Mantel's magic is in her understanding of the way we are all of humans trapped in linear time. No matter how well we think we understand that every man and woman's story can end in only one way, we spend our time fixated on the moment, forgetful of the fate awaiting us all. WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES are studies in this time-shifting consciousness, filled with small moments of passion, sorrow, and humor, like this aside from Cromwell in the midst of a tense secret negotiation: "The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it’s so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for “Back off, our prince is fucking this man’s daughter.”" And yet the momentum of the novels, as with our own lives, is relentlessly forward, rushing to the inevitable end.We know what's going to happen to Anne Boleyn and yet we hang on the flirtation between Anne and Henry as if anything could happen, something good, even. Despite everything we know.

And this is Thomas Cromwell's talent, the thing that sets him above his rivals: he knows the only strategy is in playing the game several steps ahead. "They will find him armoured, they will find him entrenched," thinks Cromwell, "they will find him stuck like a limpet to the future." Cromwell is above all a realist. Having barely survived a hellish childhood, he's happy to be alive and wants to stay that way… as long as he can. "He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes." He's a modern man in a medieval world. He would be modern in a 21st century world, for that matter.

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT will be the sequel to BRING UP THE BODIES and it may be published as early as 2015, but who knows? It will be Mantel's third novel in the series. I can't bring myself to refer to it as a concluding volume, because I want her to write them into infinity. We know that these books must end — and we know how. Yet even the very last sentence of BRING UP THE BODIES gives us hope (don't worry, it won't spoil anything):

There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.

 

The Goldfinch and the Griping

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (New York: Little, Brown, 2013). 784 pages.

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so many words.

You've heard about The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's big blockbuster of a novel, her third. Yes, I heard about it, too. People were digging it, they were loving it, they were staying up all night to read it. I wasn't sure I was ready to commit. BECAUSE IT'S 784 PAGES LONG, PEOPLE. But then one day I noticed it was only $2.99 for the Kindle version (and even 784 pages can't add more than a few Kindle ounces, I figured) so I took the plunge.

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker, a boy in Manhattan whose mother is killed in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he is 13. "Things would have turned out better if she had lived," Theo tells us right up front. And he's right: the novel tells the story of all the bad choices, bad luck, and some good luck, he finds in the decade or so after her death. Sheltered by strangers, some kind and some odd; exploited by his ne'er-do-well father; befriended by freaks and hustlers, Theo somehow manages to keep his head just above water and survive the storm that takes over his life after his mother dies. Just barely.

There's a lot to like and even love in The Goldfinch. Tartt is a meticulous observer of detail, from the way paint covers a canvas to the subtle interior monologues we have with ourselves, minute by minute each day. "Was it wrong," Theo wonders, "wanting to sleep late with the covers over my head and wander around a peaceful house with old seashells in drawers and wicker baskets of folded upholstery fabric stored under the parlor secretary, sunset falling in drastic coral spokes through the fanlight over the front door?" Those "drastic coral spikes:" those are so nice.

But the interested reader has heard what's great about The Goldfinch already: it's a ripping yarn; it's a Dickensian tale of morality for our time; it pulls you into its own special world. Fine, if it does that for you. At times, it did for me. But the more I read of The Goldfinch, the longer my list of questions and grievances grew. I didn't even know I had a list at first, but looking back over my notes, question marks, and increasingly agitated exlamations, I realized I had some Goldfinch Gripes. They boil down to three things: Why Are They Talking Like That?; Snobs; Plot vs. Action.

1. Why Are They Talking Like That?

Tartt is terrific at getting visual details right but not so great at the aural. This is especially the case with the way her characters speak. Theo... Theo's fine. It's Theo's friends who drove me crazy.

Boris, for instance. It makes sense that Theo's Russian friend Boris would named in honor of the mustache-twirling bad guy of "Bullwinkle" fame, Boris Badenov, because that's exactly how he talks. "Allow me to introducing myself. I am Boris Badenov, world's greatest no-goodnik." This is not a quote from The Goldfinch (it's from Rocky and Bullwinkle) but that's what I heard every time Boris opened his mouth. "Likely you will end up in jail, Potter," is a typical Boris comment. "Loose morals, slave to the economy. Very bad citizen, you." Pottsylvania is not named as one of the dozen countries in which Boris had lived, but I wouldn't be surprised; all the Badenovs come from there.

Then there's Hobie. I can't tell you how many times I stopped while reading his dialogue and asked myself (and the book): Wait, did Tartt say Hobie's from upstate New York? She did, didn't she? She did. And yet everything Hobie says sounds like something my favorite Leeds-born, London-living writer Alan Bennett would say. "Tough pull to get in but then a doddle once you’ve made it," Hobie tells Theo. I have no idea what that means, not being British myself, but then again NEITHER IS HOBIE.

Nor, for that matter, are the Barbours, the wealthy family that shelters Theo after his mother's death. Are they supposed to be some 21st-century version of Salinger's Glass family? I guess not, because the Glass family did not say thing like: “Well, you know, I slightly think she’s out there playing golf today.” (Kitsey Barbour) or "We none of us drink it—Daddy always ordered this kind” (Kitsey again). Keep in mind, Kitsey is supposed to be a twentysomething young woman born sometime during the  Clinton administration and raised in New York City, not in an interwar British girls' school run by Lord Sebastian Flyte and his teddy bear. “You seem in a really dire mood," Kitsey says. YES, IT'S BECAUSE OF THE WAY YOU'RE TALKING, KITSEY.

2. Snobs.

Kitsey's a nice lead-in to the next issue: snobs and snobbishness. When Theo, who is from a lower middle-class family, is orphaned and then taken in by the Barbours, he's stunned by their wealth. The huge antique-filled apartment on the Upper East Side, the art, the chauffers, the staff... it's as much of an aesthetic thrill for him as the painting of the goldfinch. Tartt is terrific at describing the textures of life with the ultra-WASPs. But try as she might, she can't quite make them into the bad guys they really are. At first I thought this was Theo's issue and it made sense: they did take him in when his mother died, after all. Then they coldly cast him aside as we always suspected they would. Later, he's brought back into the fold, but only because it suits their purposes and eases their guilt. They're not good people and yet Theo -- and more importantly, Tartt -- can't bring themselves to walk away from the Barbours and their money, their glamor, and most importantly, their status. THE BARBOURS ARE A**HOLES, OK? They're snobs. But somehow we're supposed to like them, or if not like them, forgive them, or if not forgive them, find them fascinating?

Meanwhile the poorest people in the novel, Theo's deadbeat dad and his girlfriend, a stripper named Xandra, are simply pathetic; every aspect of Xandra, from her profession to her self-styled name (it's really Sandra) to the fact that she hails from Florida are neon signs flashing "CHEAP" and attached to characters about whom we're not expected to care. Xandra in particular is immediately recognizable as the kind of bimbo usually only seen in Woody Allen movies (think Mighty Aphrodite). We're supposed to think she's lame. But a working-class girl from Florida who decides to juice up her name by adding an X to it is light years less phony than someone like Kitsey Barbour--or any of the cold-blooded social-climbing Barbours. An adult woman (Kitsey) who refers to high heels as "Hurty-hurty shoes!" and calls her boyfriend "Meanypants" is not a glamorous ditz. She's not even a manic pixie dream girl (that honor goes to Pippa--but let's not even go there). She's just a fake. While eventually even Theo manages to escape her thrall, one senses that Tartt is never fully out of love with the Barbours. Xandra can be tossed out with yesterday's newspapers but the Barbours somehow deserve a better fate."I was only one step away from some trailer park loner," thinks Theo, musing about his obsession with Pippa, "stalking a girl he’d spotted in the mall." No, not a trailer park! Not a... a... mall! The horror, folks. The horror.

Moving on.

3. Plot vs. Action

No question, a lot of stuff happens in The Goldfinch; that's the "ripping" part of the yarn. But action is not the same as plot. And this novel's plot is beside the point. There's one MacGuffin that emerges in the beginning of the novel and is never satisfactorily resolved: Theo's possession of the stolen Goldfinch painting. Yes, he took the painting from the Metropolitan Museum in the aftermath of the explosion. And yes, it would require some explaining on his part to make the authorities understand why a teenaged boy has this masterpiece stored in a pillowcase, but HE COULD JUST RETURN THE PAINTING TO THE AUTHORITIES AT ANY POINT WITHOUT ANY REAL NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES. They're not going to throw him in jail or torture him or.. anything! They'll just be happy to get the painting back. So when, after 780 (!!) pages HE DOES EXACTLY THIS I kind of wanted to throw the book across the room. But as I mentioned, I was reading it on a Kindle and I didn't want to dent the precious gadget.

With only 5 pages to go, I finished the novel. There's a lot to admire in this book. But it would have been much better had it been edited more carefully and its length cut by, say, 40 perecent. That would have cut lines like this description of people in Amsterdam: "rosy housewives with armloads of flowers, tobacco-stained hippies in wire-rimmed glasses"-- what, no flaxen-braided milkmaids wearing wooden clogs in this Dutch cartoon?--or this internal monologue of Theo's: "I wanted to say goodbye to Pippa but she was nowhere in sight. Where was she? The library? The loo?" Again: NONE OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE BRITISH. Sigh.

A 315-page Goldfinch? Yes, pelase. As Hobie says, it might have been a "Tough pull to get in but then a doddle once you’ve made it."

 

I'll Never Be a Final Girl; or, On Not Reading Justin Cronin's Excellent Novel, The Passage.

Justin Cronin,  The Passage (Ballantine: 2010), 784 pages.

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Jamie Lee Curtis, as "final girl" Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).

 

 

I just couldn't do it. But I did try. I'd heard great things about The Passage, the 700+ page thriller by Justin Cronin. I checked the ebook out from my local public library and downloaded it to my Kindle and began tearing through it like a death-row inmate infected by a terrifyingly aggressive Amazonian bat virus... YIKES.

I've had this problem before, in fact I've had it all my life: I'm too squeamish for horror. The only scary movie I truly love is The Shining, which is less a horror movie than a Kubrick movie. All his movies are scary in some way (though The Shining is much less scary when recut as a family-friendly comedy, as seen here). The only reason I got any enjoyment out of Halloween, the 1978 John Carpenter movie, was because I was able to watch it on a meta-level, with Jamie Lee Curtis as the classic "final girl", the victim who overcomes her torturers, thanks to Carol Clover's fantastic book, Men, Women & Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film. (Alert: BEST BOOK TITLE EVER).

I tried to read Stephen King's The Stand and quit once it got too... horrific. But I had high hopes for The Passage, perhaps because I thought it would be more of a dystopian fantasy along the lines of The Hunger Games (a novel about children killing each other - is there anything more horrifying?), which I was able to appreciate, if not enjoy.

The Passage begins with a classic Hubris of Man setup: American scientists hacking through the South American jungle in search of a miracle virus that will cure cancer and, possibly, death. Where are the bioethicists when you need them? Not in this scene, unfortunately, and thus a killer virus begins its journey from hidden bat cave to the rest of the planet. We then cut to various character setups: the early life of young Amy Bellafonte, the girl who will save the world; Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent who will save Amy; etc. We see the initial stages of disaster unfolding faster than the general public realizes or could even imagine and it's thrilling, as a thriller should be. The writing is perfect: fast but not cheap. A young cop is described as "a fresh recruit with a face pink as a slice of ham" and storm clouds are "a wall of spring thunderheads ascending from the horizon like a bank of blooming flowers in a time-lapse video."

This was all good. Exciting, fun, great language. But then it got scary. I'm not even going to get into it, because if you like this kind of thing you will read it for yourself and if you don't it will just sound icky. It is icky, but more than that, it's actually frightening. Cronin succeeds in describing an apocalypse that will make you worry not just about bats but about future natural disasters and what happens when the things that keep society glued together break down, from communication pathways (Wolgast realizes things are getting really bad when USA Today is reduced to two short pages) to electrical power plants to food production systems. And VAMPIRES! There, I said it.

I always enjoy the setups more than the outcomes, whether it's Harry Potter first encountering Diagon Alley to buy his wizardry supplies or walking through Dignan's 75-year plan for success in Wes Anderson's first movie, Bottle Rocket (1996), but in the case of horror it turns out it's the only part I am capable of enjoying. The decision to not finish it, however, did allow me the pleasure of spoiling the entire series (The Passage is the first of three novels, two of which have been published so far) by reading its Wikipedia page, something I also do on a guilt-free basis when the Game of Thrones books bog down. I recommend it.

So I apologize, Justin Cronin. You've written a terrific horror novel. It's just too scary to read.