05 April 2009

Laura Rider & Jane Hamilton

Let me get the imaginative, hilarious, heartbreaking plot of Jane Hamilton's Laura Rider's Masterpiece out of the way here: the eponymous Laura runs a landscaping business with her charming flibbertigibbet husband Charlie, a man so physically ardent he's sexually exhausted her twelve years into their marriage. She's exiled him from her bed, but they're still happy enough, planting and designing and making up elaborate stories about their cats. Laura, while ordinary on the surface, cherishes two secret dreams: first, she's going to be a writer of romance, not some gimmicky genre piece, but an entirely new, modern take on what Every Woman wants. Second, she's sure her path to fulfillment lies somehow through her idol, Milwaukee Public Radio personality Jenna Faroli, who's recently moved to the Riders' small hometown. When Jenna runs into Charlie by chance one evening while he's watching UFOs and then writes him a friendly email, Laura realizes in a rush her two fantasies are related. Laptop at the ready, she essentially engineers an affair between Jenna and Charlie, knowing that if she can make her sweet, silly husband into the perfect lover for a brilliant, savvy woman like Jenna--through her words--she'll be able to write her novel about love.

Then let me quote the whole first paragraph, so you'll have to read it:

Just because Laura Rider had no children didn't mean her husband was a homosexual, but the people of Hartley, Wisconsin, believed that he was, and no babies seemed to them proof. They could also tell by his heavy-lidded eyes that were sweetly tapered, his thick dark lashes, his corkscrew curls, his skinny legs and the springy walk, and the fact that he often looked dreamily off in thought, as if he were trying to see over the rainbow. In the municipal chambers at a public meeting, a town councilman had once said that Charlie Rider needed a shot of testosterone. It was a mystery to Laura that in Hartley, population thirty-seven hundred, people who had never been to a gay-pride parade or seen any cake boys that they knew of outside of TV actors, were so sure about Charlie. She assumed that, like any place, the town was laced with fairies, not visible to the naked eye, but Charlie, she could testify, was not one of them. Laura herself had not been to a pride parade, but her personal experience included her flamboyant uncle Will, her outrageous cousin Stephen, her theatrical playfellow Bubby from the old neighborhood, and also her Cousin Angie, who had tried to shock them all by having a lesbian phase in college. No one in the family, it turned out, cared.

Then let me gush a little about the astonishing metanarrative all of this serves. Because of course, this is a novel about novels, writing about writing, and seems to me to ask the question: does an author have a moral obligation to her characters? Is her complete control over their lives, by definition, despotic? There's also wonderful, witty musing about the culture of the amateur, the creatureliness of even the intellectuals, and the banality of love. Jane Hamilton's doing a book signing at my store April 21st; I'm just a little bit giddy at the prospect.

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