So here's something I'm learning about myself. My favorite form of fiction is the short novel. Below I'll discuss two that are utterly excellent and are both about a woman coming into her own. Both are just stunning. Both have killing closings that left me literally short of breath.
027) Passing by Nella Larsen, finished March 18
Holy crap. What a book! So . . . wow. Why the heck hasn't this novel ever been given a decent cover?maybe three weeks
Anyway, it's the 1920s. The two main characters are African-American women---culturally. Were you to pass them on the street and see their white skins dressed in finery, you would be unlikely to guess. They can pass as white whenever they like, and one has chosen to pass permanently. She has married a white man and abandoned her black past entirely until she happens to meet the other women at a fine hotel restaurant. Thus setting in place a certain tragedy.
Irene, the woman who stayed, seems more troubled by the risks the passer takes as she returns to Negro society than the passer does herself. And the difficulties and risks increase as time passes.
Until the tragic end. I thought I knew what was coming, having accidentally read half a sentence from the scholarly introduction, but boy oh boy was I wrong. It was in fact much more ambiguous and complicated and awful and wonderful and savory and disastrous than that half-sentences suggested.
The pain of these two women---so different yet so similar in origin---is one of the most emotionally evocative things I've read in some time.
And it gives me a new lens to think about the us of today. Where are these women? Do they still feel trapped?
In the film, do we have Amanda Seyfried play the passer, or do we hunt for someone with one drop of Plessy's blood?
026) Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson, finished March 17
Holy cow I love this book. My expectations were ill-defined but this book managed to exceed them anyway. Since all I've previously read of Shirley Jackson is The Lottery and One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts and Haunting of Hill House, I suppose I expected a thriller and mystery and murder and the supernatural and suchlike. The cover certainly encouraged that:under a month
Or check out the back, especially that money quote from the Chronicle:
(Incidentally, for a look at other old covers of the book, see this post. Some of the newer covers are better. Like the current American Penguin or, my favorite although not the most accurate, the current British Penguin.)
Anyway. Utter nonsense. (Although the book was published in 1951 and so people may have had a true-life horror story in mind as they read it. Not so anymore.) But then, maybe that's just because I'm insane. Looking around a bit, it seems like people are reading protagonist Natalie as crazy whereas I recognize her thought processes as much like my own and therefore not strange or surprising in the least. Dangerous? Sure. But no more dangerous than crossing the street. She's refective and solipsistic and confused and constantly narrating. You know. Like George Orwell.
Anyway, you can view it as a suspense story if you like, but to me it's simply a terrific bildungsroman. And one from the underserved female pov. Seriously. This feels like a glimpse into the secret female mind, an inner sanctum to which I should not have been allowed*.
Natalie is 17 throughout the book. She moves from high-school senior to college freshman (and if you're wondering if I would teach this book the answer is YES). She experiences horrors slight and serious (very serious), but primarily she's stumbling through life trying to find out who Natalie is. Will she uncover the adult Natalie? Will she even survive?
And that's the suspense. I don't like the way the cover describes its suspense because it makes it sound like Silence of the Lambs when the story it's telling is much quieter, much more internal. And much more universal. Natalie is the 17yrold every[wo]man. I saw myself in her. I daresay you will too.
Press this book upon those who are young and lost.
Another marvelous aspect of this book is its depiction of 1951. This isn't the sockhop Fifties, but for a 17yrold, World War II is already ancient history. It's an era often skipped over when we imagine the 20th century, neither the distant past nor the burgeoning present. It's a foreign country easily mistaken for home. (Although it will, I think, to my students simply be ancient.)
One last thing: the novel ever explains the title. Here's the explanation. Good luck with it.
(comments after reading reviews online)
Although at first I was resistant to the is-Tony-real angle (and still am---aspects of it are tough to jive), I now find it rather compelling. Certainly something to consider closely on a reread.
I failed to mention that the trauma I hinted at seems to have largely defined the course of the novel. Should have done so.
I should probably read The Bell Jar to compare and contrast.
I agree that the final paragraph is utterly beautiful.
"Turning its pages, traces of Natalie stained my fingertips."
"it’s the kind of book that sends you searching immediately for other people’s ideas of what it is you’ve just read"
Previously in 2014 . . . . :