Monday, February 10, 2003

Local Girls by Alice Hoffman

I want to talk to you this morning about a newish book by Alice Hoffman and also to mention a book of contemporary essays by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.

Probably most of you readers of fiction have read some of the little novels by Hoffman. She has a real talent for writing short, easy to read novels that pull the reader along with writing so artful that pages pass by effortlessly. Despite the ease of reading and lengths that invite the busy city reader, there is always substance to her novels as well.

When Clayton asked me what the theme of this novel is, I could find no easy way to describe it, but I suppose one could put it in the coming of age genre. The heroine, Gretel, and her best friend, Jill, find themselves locked in battle with the adults who seem to control them. In Gretel’s words: “It was not simply our neighborhood that we hated, but the entire adult world, which, regretfully, we were soon destined to join.”

In fact, this book is a series of little sketches, more like short stories than chapters in a novel. Hoffman may use this device as a way of covering more years in the lives of Gretel and Jill than would usually work well in a novel. We catch glimpses of the two girls when they are quite young, carrying out middle of the night pranks together and vowing eternal sisterhood. Other quick peaks when they are in the troubling twilight zone between childhood and grown women, Jill succumbing earlier Gretel to the world of boys. And from that point on, only a few sketches of their drifting apart, Jill into much too early motherhood, leaving Gretel lonely, confused, and yet thankful Jill’s life is not her’s.

And beside the story of these two runs a parallel one—two other ‘girls’ who have lived much as Gretel and Jill, but who are already aware of the dangers of men and the perils of being adult women. Indeed, this pair, cousins who are as close as grown-ups as they were as children, provide a depth and substance to the novel that it otherwise would not have had. I won’t be giving away too much of the story by telling you that Gretel’s mother, Francis, is sick with cancer from the time Jill is quite young. Francis’ childhood friend and cousin, Margot, is there for her during the surgeries and treatments, the remissions and recurrences, and she is there for Gretel as well, acting as a second mother, but one far enough removed to be friend and confidant as well. Margot’s skepticism and suspicion of men act as a kind of warning for Gretel, and the depth of commitment between the two older women also provides Gretel with a model of what relationships can be.

As Gretel and Margot learn to deal with the certainty of Francis’ impending death, the reader has a good backseat view, a kind of preparation for dealing with mortality that we must all face. But Hoffman is able to bring all of this off with a kind of humor and grace that adds a generous spoonful of sugar to the medicine. She is also able to describe a lot to us about small town life, about high promise in young people, boys in particular, that gets quickly and quietly snuffed via infatuation with drugs. Gretel’s brother, Jason, is the first in the town to be admitted to a prestigious ivy league school. Unlike most of the other boys in town, he has been serious about school, caring more about science projects and homework than about cars and girls and sports. Everything about his life seems to suggest that he will not be like the other boys and young men, and his sudden love affair with drugs surprises everyone, Gretel more than most. It must be just a phase; certainly he will come to, will realize that college is his way out of this small town, this life.

But enough of the story; the fact that the book is dedicated to Jo Ann Hoffman, 1950–1996, suggests to me that the young mother, Francis, who is dying of cancer is very well known to Alice Hoffman, and all of the sketches have that feel of memoir. The novel is uplifting, quick, and with the same magical quality as Hoffman’s other novels. If you pick it up and read it, you will probably not even notice the message or messages until you put it down.


Let me mention this morning another book that I am currently reading and that I think all of you who love reading about us, here and now, will love. I have talked about the author many times on this program; her name is Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and she has written some of the best novels of the last thirty or forty years, including Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn, The Fatigue Artist and my very favorite book about being a reader, Ruined by Reading. I am a reader, primarily, not a writer, but when I read Schwartz writing about what it is to be a reader in the world, I find myself wishing that I were the writer. Her new set of essays is called Face To Face: A Reader in the World. The very first essay is one about the telephone and the place it has come to occupy in our lives. Schwartz has the same fears and suspicions of the phone that I have, but she can write about those fears in ways that are so perceptive and so funny. One quick quote:
I’ve been told my ‘Hello’ sounds a world-weary, ‘What now?’ note—if not expecting the worst, then at least something pretty bad. This doesn’t surprise me. Our every gesture shows how we anticipate that the world will impinge on us--for impinging it must, and more and more often right at home, assaulting the open gate of the ear. The world’s approach, for me at any rate, is an interruption of the inner dialogue, at once fantastical and mundane, in which I’m forever absorbed.
I leave you to imagine for yourself her view of the ubiquitous cell-phone.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz is a wonderful New York activist, a woman who has had to learn to find a balance between her life as a writer and intellectual and social activist with the demands of being a mother, which she also loves and has freely chosen. She is one of the brightest and most humorous essayists I have encountered. I have always loved her novels, but it takes a very special essayist to lure me away from ficition. She is among the very best.

If you feel forced by your schedule to choose only one of the two books I have talked about, I would recommend the Schartz essays, meatier and more profound, but both are quite worth the read.

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