Monday, April 27, 2009

The Laws Of Harmony by Judith Ryan Hendricks

Hendricks begins her novel with a wonderful if somewhat enigmatic quote from Collette: “It is the image in the mind that binds us to our lost treasures, but it is the loss that shapes the image.” Now all we have to discover is what has been lost, and how that loss has shaped the image.

There have been a number of very well written novels on the perils of growing up as flower children in the 60s and 70s. Many of us who were already grown tend to remember the courageous and in many ways successful student movements, the birth of the Black Power movement and the sense of empowerment of young people in this country and around the world. All too often, I think we turn a blind eye to the difficulties for many of the children who grew up in both urban and rural communes. One book that comes immediately to mind is Joelle Frazier’s excellent little autobiographical novel, The Territory of Men, in which she describes just how harrowing it could be for a young child hovering on the fringes of all night or all weekend parties at homes that were not your own—drugs and so-called free love just through the curtain, in the next room. Unlike Frazier, Hendricks is not moved from home to home, town to town, still she describes well how even the relative stability of an established commune provided too little protection and guidance for the children.
I was born at sunrise on June 3, 1971, on a commune near Taos, New Mexico. Delivery was accomplished with the help of a midwife as my mother squatted, panting, on her mattress, surrounded by her commune sisters, panting in sympathy, cheering her on. 
The men had hovered in the kitchen all night, playing cards and drinking, smoking, drifting in and out of the birth room unnoticed, like ghosts.
The girl’s mother, Gwen, remained on the commune long after almost all others, including husband, son, and daughter had left, convinced that what she gave her children was a better life and better values than they could possibly have had in a more conventional household. She names her girl child Soleil, but even the name (which the girl quite promptly changes to Sunny once she realizes that neither her teachers nor her classmates will ever say it right) seems to her to be a curse rather than a blessing.

In fact, this novel is the story of  Sunny’s bitterness concerning how she was raised and of her flight from her mother and all that her mother embraced. But in telling the story, Hendriks adds a layer of mystery to Sunny’s life via her handsome partner, almost husband, who wheels and deals in the world of venture capital. He starts small businesses, or seems to, only to sell them quickly and move to another such venture.  Questions from Sunny about his business ventures are quickly turned aside; sometimes there is a lot of money, sometimes none. Quite aside from the secretiveness and mystery of his business concerns, almost from the start, the relationship is compromised by too little communication and the boyfriend’s apparent total conflation of touch, even comforting touch, with sex. And then quite suddenly he is simply gone, presumed dead, and there are lots of angry men looking for him. One after another, these men confront Sunny, convinced that she must know more about her boyfriend’s shady deals than she is letting on. Sunny decides to uproot, run, disappear, in one fell swoop leave behind her mother and that hippy commune past as well as the precarious and seemingly dangerous present.

And what a move, what a change—from the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to the islands off the coast of Washington and a little town called Harmony, which, ironically, is also the name of the commune on which she was raised. Working in a restaurant and surrounded by women who have, due to their own pasts and soured relationships, escaped to this island existence, Sunny is essentially reborn. The attention and care that she receives from this group of women is so genuine and warm, so unlike the confused and selfish attention she is used to from men. One reviewer quoted on the book-cover says that Hendricks “calls to mind Barbara Kingsolver in her affinity for wise women and the power of close female friendships.”  And while I would not compare Hendricks social and environmental insights with those of Kingsolver, she does write very well about relationships between women.

Eventually and painstakingly, these women coax Sunny out of her shell of secretiveness, and as they gain her trust, they also gently and gradually persuade her to attempt some reconciliation with her mother. What men, her boyfriend in particular, could not do with sex, the women seem to accomplish via cooking. In fact the theme of cooking and baking weaves through this story; as Sunny says, “I believe in baking the way some people believe in God. It’s usually what I turn to on those days when the very thought of reality is enough to send me diving back under the covers.” Baking is also the thread that leads her back to her mother, helping her to recall the good things she has inherited from Gwen, despite what she sees as the disorder and chaos of life on the commune.

In the end, at least for me, the mystery that is supposed to lead the reader along, keep the pages turning, is heavier than the actual plot will bear. And the final resolution is neither quite convincing nor sufficient to justify the ominous tone set early in the novel. Add to this that the book is a hundred pages or so longer than it needs to be, and the net result is a satisfying but less than profound read. Hendricks has written other novels (also, it seems, with cooking as a major theme), and this book was good enough to make me want to at least start the others. She does have a talent for describing the restorative nature that relationships between women can have, and she does a good job of calling into question all overly rosy views of what commune life was like for the children raised on them. And if not profound, the novel is entertaining and easy to read.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Ghost At The Table by Suzanne Berne

"From a mustard seed of truth spring the most egregious lies. And, of course, the most enduring stories." So says Cynthia, called Cynnie by her family, and she could have been talking about her own life and family or about what she does for a living. She is an author who writes historical fiction of a very particular sort; she writes about the sisters of famous women, and her target audience is adolescent girls. "Sisters Behind the Sisters of History" is the marketing tag for the books she and her best friend, Carita, write, and Cynnie has already written books about the sister of Helen Keller, Emily Dickenson, and Louisa May Alcott. Her new project is a book about Mark Twain's daughters.

However, the writing life of Cynnie is only a teaser in this novel, a tool for getting to the real story which is about three sisters, their long dead mother, and their avoided, sometimes detested father, who is about to enter a care facility. The older sister, Helen, has also died a few years earlier, leaving Francis and Cynthia to deal with their past and with their invalided father. Francis, a successful interior decorator who is married to an equally successful doctor, has persuaded Cynnie to leave her west coast sanctuary to come home to New England for Thanksgiving. What she has not told Cynthia is that they are committed to collecting their father from his present much younger wife, who says she can no longer deal with him, and to depositing him in a care facility.

What Berne shows us in this novel is that she is a master at describing the psychological tensions of family life and the peculiar ways in which memory deceives and occludes. Both sisters and their father think they are carrying within them a dark secret about the past, a secret too horrible to allow to surface, and each thinks she or he is protecting another by allowing things to remain as they are. During all the time that the girls were growing up, their mother was gravely ill, only now and then, during momentary respites, managing to leave her upstairs bedroom to enter the swirl of family activity below. Cynnie, the youngest of the three daughters feels bad for her mother and sometimes goes upstairs to read to her. Francis simply wants to forget that she has a mother at all, ashamed in some odd way to admit to her friends that she has such an unusual and un-motherly mother. Helen acts as surrogate mother to her younger sisters and provides some care to their ailing mother, but most of the household chores as well as the almost constant care required by their mother is provided by Mrs. Jordon, a paid servant.

What I found particularly clever about this book was Berne’s ability to present a novel about family life and sisterly competition as a kind of mystery, almost a thriller, which keeps the reader turning pages in order to uncover the secret. While, in fact, what she shows us is the tricks that memory plays on us and the ways in which a single event can be interpreted in wildly different ways, depending primarily on the hidden, guilty wishes of each family member. Yes, the husband would like to be relieved of the burden of a wife who is no longer a companion, the daughters would like to be able to guiltlessly leave home to embark on their own lives. And not only our memories of past events, but our very ‘seeing’ of those events as they occur, are indelibly colored by our secret wishes and guilts.

It is unclear whether the ghost at the table in this novel is the mother and the suspicious circumstances of her death, or the old man in the wheelchair, a mere shadow of the angry, strong father the girls recall with a mixture of fear and hatred. Finally, as the mystery at least partly unravels, there is a kind of reconciliation in this book, an understanding, at least on the part of Cynthia, that she has in many ways manufactured the past in order to justify her present and her rather solitary life of serial lovers. She has demonized her father and made up stories about her sisters, but in the end it has been her own needs rather than real events that has shaped her vision. If she does not entirely forgive her father, at least she begins to understand how she has distorted events in order to keep her hatred alive.
Whatever he had done for us, or not done, must have seemed justifiable to him at the time. My mother, too, had done what she could in the midst of her illness, by asking little of us, except that we not watch her too closely. They, like most people, had done their best. You love whom you love, you fail whom you fail, and almost always we fail the ones we meant to love. Not intentionally, that’s just how it happens. We get sick or distracted or frightened and don’t listen, or listen to the wrong things. Time passes, we lose track of our mistakes, neglect to make amends. And then, no matter how much we might like to try again, we’re done. Whatever inspiring song we hoped to sing for the world is over, sometimes to general regret, more frequently to small notice, and even, if we were old and sick, to relief.
This may not be a great book, but it is insightful. It teaches us a lot about family life, and it does so while telling an intriguing story. Suzanne Berne also does her best.