Monday, November 15, 1999

Joy School by Elizabeth Berg

I want to talk to you this morning about a delightful little book by Elizabeth Berg entitled, Joy School. Last June, I reviewed another little book of hers, The Pull of the Moon. That novel is about a grown woman who runs away from home, not because she is abused or unloved by her husband, not because she is unsatisfied with her adult children, but simply because she feels she has never been afforded the chance to discover who she is. That book was such a joy to read that I felt somehow that it may not deserve a review all by itself, so I included two other lovely novels about what it means to be a woman in this culture. Looking back, I realize that Pull of the Moon did deserve its own review, and that good books can be short, and they can by happy, or, at any rate, need not be unremittingly sad. Both of these books are what I call ‘quick hitters’; Berg seems to be the master of the two hundred page novel. Just right for one, long single sitting, and the two books together perfect for a long weekend of reading.

Joy School just recently came out in a paperback edition, and let me say a word here about the bargain of remaindered hardbounds. When a new paperback edition is put on the market, it is a common practice for bookstores to remainder their hard bound editions (knowing how hard they will be to sell once the paperback edition is out). The amazing thing is that the remaindered hardbacks often sell for less than half the price of the new paperback edition; such was the case with this Berg novel. I was actually carrying the paperback around the bookdstore, unable to resist any Berg novel, when I thought to check the remainders table, and sure enough, there it was for the bargain price of $3.50—considerably less than half the price of the new paperback. I often get my entire summer reading stack either by purchasing used books or remaindered hardbacks, an important consideration given the price of new books these days.

Joy School belongs in the genre of coming of age novels. What is amazing about this book is that Berg is able to say a lot about just what it means to come of age, what it means to love, by covering a very short period in one girl’s life between the end of her twelfth year and the beginning of her thirteenth. We who are a long way from our teens tend to forget just how intense life can be for such ‘children’, and we also tend to write off their loves, especially their disappointments in love, as puppy-love. Insultingly, we inform them the loss only seems important now, this early intimation of love will pale once they grow up and find the real thing. Berg reminds us forcefully that early love is very much the real thing. It can be crushing or redeeming, but in either case it is real and needs to be taken seriously.

Because I am such a fan of these coming of age stories (especially those written by women, since women seem to me to be so much more emotionally intelligent in recalling these early experiences), I have read lots of them. Of course, many of these stories, even most of them, are sad—dismally sad. Think of Barbara Goudy’s Falling Angels, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out Out of Carolina; so many children abused, stilted, so many children having to parent their own parents. I have spent the last year reading and helping my very first girlfriend (now a woman in her 50’s) with her autobiographical novel, an important and wonderful book, but heart wrenching to read. Still perhaps the most beautiful woman I have ever known, she was made into the girlfriend of her stepfather when she was only seven years old! The first person ever really to notice her, to ‘love’ her, he took advantage of her incredible need by raping and abusing her for the half dozen or so years until she reached puberty, and then he dropped her, cut her off from all affection, her punishment for his fears and guilt.

I bring these dismal but important stories up to make it clear that I am quite aware of just how unhappy many childhoods are, and I know we need to read these stories in spite of their sadness. We have to hear the stories of girls and women, learn over and over the price of sexism and oppression. But when the occasional happy story comes along, we need not feel guilty or lied to, we need not put aside these wonderful, if infrequent, tales. I remember from my youth being enchanted by Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (I think his best novel ever) and later by Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (which I think is her best work as well). Berg’s Joy School belongs in this group. Though this little girl loses her mother early and is raised by a caring but stern military father, and though she is never in one place long enough to really create family for herself, still she is resilient and tough and even optimistic. Her story could be one of the awful ones, for she falls in love with a young man in his early twenties, and it could well have happened that he would be or become the monster who takes advantage of the pure and innocent love that this girl directs towards him. Instead, because he really cares for her, really sees her, he responds as any adult should. He does not discount her love, does not make fun of it, but neither does he use it for some sort of sexual dalliance.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot of this beautiful little piece; Berg does set up some dramatic tension, and any reader sophisticated in the ways of this so often nasty world will be anxious, fearing a turn for the worst at any moment. What I loved about the book is Berg’s subtle but clear message that we can see other people if we try, that men can see beyond their genitals if they are willing, that they can refuse sexual opportunities, even sexual advances from girls and or women, without discounting or demeaning them. She shows us too that just as adults remain in so many ways the children that they were/are, so, too, children are in so many ways as perceptive and smart and ‘adult’ as their grown-up selves will be. In one passage, this young girl describes what it feels like to be attended to and taken care of by a person, to see and love the softness and warmth in a serious, grown-up man. He has just told her to button up her coat before taking her for a ride in his treasured vintage car.
He takes care of you, it is in his nature. If he came to a dying flower dropped on the street he would still move it so it wouldn’t get stepped on. I button the top button of my coat, which chokes me to death but who cares.
I love the voice of the narrator in this story. I am amazed, stunned, by Berg’s ability to adopt a convincing and consistent twelve-year-old voice without (at least to this reader) seeming trite or sentimental. The suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader that we are told is so essential to really good writing, is no effort here at all; I believe this girl, I believe in her lucidity, her goodness, her intense love, even her wisdom. I would like to have known her.

Pick up any of Berg’s novels; I think you will be glad you did.

Monday, November 01, 1999

The Best of Friends by Joanna Trollope

I want to talk to you this morning about a contemporary novelist, Joanna Trollope, and in particular about her novel The Best of Friends (which is now available in paperback). This is Trollope’s fifth novel, and on the jacket of each of the five, the publishers draw our attention to the fact that she is a descendent of Anthony Trollope. As an aside, I am wondering when, finally, the situation will be reversed and new additions of Anthony Trollope’s work will be identified by reference to his famous descendent, Joanna.

If there is any justification at all in the comparison, it is that both writers are concerned primarily with descriptions of what might be called ordinary people and their relationships. In fact, Johanna is (to my eyes) the much more skillful of the two. I think it would be easy for readers who insist on serious, substantive literature to overlook Joanna Trollope. After all, her novels are best sellers; they read with the flow and ease of a good mystery, and they can be read as a kind of dessert. Indeed, I have to confess that I put aside whatever else I am reading when one of her novels comes into my hands, and I feel a kind of guilt at the sheer enjoyment I experience in reading her flowing novels.

However, I never get far into her novels without realizing that I am learning important things about relationships from someone who has an excellent and trained eye for observing. Although discursive essay has an important role in informing us about relationships, about how they go right, how they go wrong, how deceit inevitably erodes and corrupts them, really good novels do something that essays cannot do. This has to do partly with the fact that lots of people who read novels would not, by choice, pick up a heavy discursive essay, but there is more to it than that. What Trollope wants to show us in this novel (among other things) is how families weather broken marriages, or, more accurately, broken primary relationships. The best of friends after whom this novel is named are two families—two families so close as to almost be one.

As usual, I will insist on giving away as little of the plot as possible (since I have always hated book reviews that tell me more of the story than I want to know). However, the reader will very quickly learn in this little novel that one of the marriages is going badly. Trollope is, I think, almost as astute as Iris Murdoch in seeing just how destructive relationships can be when they start to go bad. I would be very surprised if Trollope has not carefully read Murdoch’s work; her attention to detail and her meticulous creation of rich, complicated and believable characters seems very much in the Murdochian tradition. In the name of loyalty, one of the two couples in this story remain together long after they have ceased to strengthen and support one another. Indeed, as Trollope so clearly sees, the very thing that makes good relationships so enriching (namely, that each member of the partnership likes and values the other more than her/himself—so that the reflection given back enhances and vivifies the self), not only lessens as the relationship declines, but reverses itself. This is a difficult thing to say clearly. As the people begin to distance from each other, each new interest of the other, indeed, even old interests and activities, become threatening to the other. And again, in the name of loyalty, it occurs often enough that each person grows smaller by the day as they limit and conform themselves to the expectations of the other.

Let me try to use a passage from the book to make this point. Gina, the wife in the relationship going bad, is trying to explain to her old friend Laurence, the husband in the other relationship, what transpired in the fateful confrontation that is now leading to the dissolution of her marriage.
He said I’d allowed myself to wither so that I’d not only not got any new horizons, but I wasn’t interested in having any. He said I ran round after him and Sophy [their daughter] trying to claw out little bits of their lives and that I was showing every sign of becoming a hysteric with a craving for rows and scenes. He said I play emotional games and that my best energies are now devoted to manipulating people.
Laurence replies to this that her husband, Fergus, seems simply to be building a raft of excuses to sail away on, and his comment is to the point. Nevertheless, and in spite of the unfairness of Fergus’ attack, Trollope allows us to see that there is a lot of truth in what he says. Fergus and Gina have changed; interests they had in common have been abandoned by one while accented by the other. No harm in that unless each begins to see every difference as either a threat or a condemnation.

Not to continue on too long with the downward spiral of this relationship, the reader quickly comes to see that were this simply a matter of whether these two people should stay together, the answer is clearly “No!”. But, again like Murdoch, Trollope will not let us off so easily. After all, this is real life she is describing, not a novel. While it is true that each of these people is daily diminishing both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the other, there are families involved here, not simply their happiness, or even their potential as people. A bit of honesty and communication might help—less fighting and accusation and more real attempts to understand. But Trollope wants to move on now and to move the reader on. Suppose it is ‘best’ in some sense for these two to go their own ways, what of their daughter? And suppose now that Gina turns to her oldest friend (and probably her first love) Laurence for help and succor, and that he, out of real love and concern, reaches out for her. Is it enough that their love for one another is real? That they have, when they pause to consider, loved each other always?

Almost all of the rest of the novel is directed towards the consequences for both families of the dissolution of the marriage of Gina and Fergus. Each of four children as well as Gina’s aging mother gives us their story, a picture of just how far-ranging the consequences can be of one divorce. We hear Fergus attempting to explain to his daughter, Sophy, why the lack of harmony between him and Gina forced him to leave, though she ‘explains’ just as clearly how the desertion is of her as well as of her mother. And when he insists that she could have come with him, that he did not choose to leave her, it is the child who has to explain how that would simply compound the desertion of Gina.

Again, I think I will not be giving away too much if I say that the original best of friends are Gina and Laurence, and that Gina’s agony calls forth from Laurence a sympathetic response, a genuine loving response, that begins to threaten the marriage of Laurence and his wife, Hilary. Again reminding me of Murdoch, Trollope will not allow us as readers to oversimplify; the love between Laurence and Gina is real and deep, but it does not negate his love for his wife, nor does it justify his abandoning his family.

Let me end by quoting one more scene from the novel, one that I think gets at some of the complexities Trollope sees. As Laurence attempts to explain to Gina why, in spite of his love, he cannot leave or abandon his family, Gina retorts:
We can’t use our children as excuses for what we do. They’d never forgive us. They may hate us just now but they’d hate us even more later if we said that you'd only stayed on in your marriage for their sakes. It isn’t fair to burden them with that. That’s our burden.
Laurence said softly, “Don’t you make excuses.

I’m not--”

“Yes, your are. You’re trying to justify things. The only justification we have, Gina, is that we want to do this thing, and it’s not a justification that has, or can possibly have, any appeal for anyone but us.”
I don’t want to pretend that Trollope sums up so neatly, or even that she thinks there is a right answer here. What she does see is the enormous complexity of relationships and of families, and she describes this complexity in an interesting and compelling and (I think) enlightening way. She writes as if she knew me, as if she can name my blindness, my excuses, my selfishness. I think you will see that she names you as well.