The setup could easily make for the dourest of Important Literary Novels (you know, the kind that actually win the National Book Award): it's the story of the inseparable lives of twins Dorcas and Abby Mather, one spinster librarian, one overweight sexpot, and the latter's operatic and abusive marriage to novelist Conrad Lowe--which ends in his death at her hands. Most of the novel is flashback, as Dorcas hunkers down in her library during a spectacular storm, reading the true-crime account of Abby's life and crime . . . correcting as necessary.
Dorcas is a clear-eyed, cynical narrator, and it's her Saharan wit that makes this tragic tale into a comic delight. She's eschewed sex for a lifelong love of books, and her descriptions of the bookish soul made me proclaim "YES EXACTLY" out loud multiple times. (There's a whole paean to reading Nancy Drew and world fairytales as a child that I could've written.) Willett's sharp eye for the excesses of literary culture is on display here too, as in her most recent novel, Amy Falls Down, one of my faves of the year.
And here's where I stop talking and just quote:
- "Nobody appreciates the horror of a good book dying on the wrong shelf."
- "Guy gleamed with sweat, as though mere existence on the material plane were physically exhausting."
- [A blurb on Abby's bio]: "...you will weep, you will tremble, you will cheer, and yes, you will laugh...incredible, horrifying, nauseating, and, ultimately, life-affirming and empowering. Abby Mather's triumph is our triumph.--Victoria Fracas, author of Rape, Rape, Rape
- "New Yorkers genuinely have no curiosity. They don't want to know. New Englanders do, but they'll be damned if they'll ask."
- "How well do you remember that, say, six-year-old six-hundred-pager the Times assured you was destined to become a classic? You know. The 'monumental work of fiction' that you were supposed to run, not walk, to the nearest bookstore to purchase, the book that was going to change your life, that you must read this year if you read nothing else...Winner of the National Book Award. You remember. Handleman's Jest. Parameters & Palimpsests. The Holocaust Imbroglio. We sell these babies for fifty cents apiece, or try to, seven years after they come out. We sell them because nobody has checked them out for four years."
Reading was not an escape for her, any more that it is for me. It was an aspect of direct experience. She distinguished, of course, between the fictional world and the real one, in which she had to prepare dinners and so on. Still, for us, the fictional world was an extension of the real, and in no way a substitute for it, or refuge from it. Any more than sleeping is a substitute for waking.(Parting words: two fantastic essays by Ron Hogan on criticism also made me proclaim "YES EXACTLY" a few times this week. He puts forth the notion that book critics err when they start to believe they can judge a work's intrinsic worth, suggesting the humble but still valuable alternative that I've been trying to do all along: "Instead of saying 'This and only this is how fiction should be done!' we can say 'This is a way of doing fiction that works for me,' and if we can work past that level to 'And here’s what I’ve figured out about why it works for me,' even better." Good stuff.)