Monday, October 27, 2008

Alice Sebold, Debra Dean, and Elizabeth Berg

Occasionally, one of my reader friends will ask me why it is that I seem to review only books that I think are good, and my response is something like, “Well, there are so many really good books and so little time to talk about them, why should I bother to review the bad or the not so good.” Add to this that so much about our own histories goes into the reading of a book; so much is determined by our moods, our preoccupations, our comportment. Quite good books can appear otherwise if we are not ready for them as readers. At any rate, today I am going to depart from my customary habit and talk briefly about three books: one quite good one, one that caught my attention but did not leave the lasting impression I usually insist on for reviews, and one that has gotten lots of attention but that I think is not really deserving.

Let me begin with the book that has received lots of attention, but that I found to be quite unconvincing and strained. The author is Alice Sebold, and the name of the book is The Almost Moon. I’m sure lots of you have read Sebold’s previous best seller, The Lovely Bones. That book, allegedly penned by a dead girl who was the victim of a horrible kidnapping and rape, strained the suspension of disbelief so important when reading fiction, but in the end I was willing to bend a long way as a reader, especially since I had reason to believe that autobiographical events in Sebold’s life had prompted her to write the book. Even in that book, however, the events became more and more fantastical, finally to the point of being downright goofy as the dead girl witnessed and in some ways even guided the investigation of her own disappearance. Sebold’s new bestseller, The Almost Moon, strains the reader’s credulity almost from the beginning. Again, the theme is an important one: How does one deal humanely, compassionately, with a parent who is suffering from dementia? How much must one cease living one’s own life in order to care for a parent who is in almost all ways no longer really there? Sebold certainly does manage to present a vivid picture of the sorts of sacrifices and heartbreak involved in such care, but I have to say that I have had many friends who have been in situations as daunting (even more daunting) and who have done a much better job of coping. However, it is not the success or failure of the daughter, Helen, to cope with her mother that makes this book so unconvincing, it is simply the sequence of events described. My conviction is that Sebold could have presented the same dilemmas, raised the same sorts of issues about just how much of one’s life must be sacrificed to others, and yet not forced the reader to believe such an unlikely sequence of events. In the end, I felt that reading the book gave me a somewhat better understanding of the nearly impossible demands some of my friends have experienced in dealing with relatives, but I became increasing frustrated with both Sebold’s lead character and with Sebold herself. One reviewer calls the book “compulsively readable,” but I felt mostly relief when I turned the final page.

The second book, Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad, is also the story of a woman who is quite rapidly losing her sense of a continuous self due to Alzheimer’s. However, unlike Sebold’s book, this one is utterly believable and told with a tenderness and compassion that carries the reader along, or, more precisely, carries the reader back and forth between a girlhood in Leningrad, with the German army poised on the outskirts, and an adult woman at a family gathering with husband and children hovering around her, trying desperately to believe that she is the woman she has always been. In fact, in her own words: “It is as though she has been transported into a two-dimensional world, a book perhaps, and she exists only on this page. When the page turns, whatever was on the previous page disappears from her view.
The young woman in Leningrad is involved in a hurried and desperate attempt to save, hide, and store the artwork in a large museum before the German’s steal or destroy all of it, including the Madonnas for whom the book is named. Now, although a grown women with children and grandchildren, she sees herself as that girl wandering the halls of that museum, memorizing for some future time the positions of pieces of art that are being packed and stowed away. She, Marina, is more often there in Leningrad than in her home in America. While we all in some sense live in the past, present, and future all at once, Marina is, as it were, taken in by each new scene, really living it, and jarred back to a present that is in most ways less real than the past she has just left. This story is told with such wonderful detail and in such fluid prose that it is hard to believe this is a first novel. Although I read it some months ago, it remains vivid and fresh for me, and I mean to read whatever else this woman writes.

Finally, let me say just a few words about a not new novel by Elizabeth Berg; although I love her writing and read up her novels as soon as I find them, this 2000 novel somehow escaped my attention until now. The title of the book is Open House, and it deserves a review all its own. It is only because I have talked to you so often (and so recently) about Berg’s other novels that I choose only to give passing mention to this one.

Samantha, Sam to most, is almost surprised when her husband, David, announces one morning that he no longer wants to live with her and their eleven year old son. Shocked, stunned, and yet also simply hearing what she already knows: “You know before you know, of course. You are bending over the dryer, pulling out the still-warm sheets, and the knowledge walks up your backbone. You stare at the man you love and you are staring at nothing: he is gone before he is gone.”

At least for this reader, Berg writes always from a position of knowledge. She describes what she has seen, what she has experienced, what she has understood, and with a prose as witty and refreshing as any writer I can think of. This is clearly a feminist piece, and yet obviously told through the eyes of a woman who loves men and who understands them. As always, she writes of real relationships, real hardships, real life, and yet the reader is carried along effortlessly, eagerly. She instructs as well as entertains, and this book is simply another reminder that I want to read her up.

And there it is, an excellent book, a good one, and a hot best-seller that is not so good.

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