About Reading and Writing
What Only Stories Can Do
Delphinium Books Blog, December 15, 2020
I had the good fortune to read Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge before most people, having been assigned it for review by The Boston Globe. I remember sitting with the galley on vacation in Florida over my winter break, often placing my finger on a page to mark my place before closing the galley to look up and ponder some poignant line or observation, or just to marvel at Strout's brilliance. I'd read and admired her work before, but OK is, to me, her best.
But I took issue with the way her publisher had marketed the book as "a novel in stories." No, I wrote in my review—it is, like Sherwood Anderson's classic Winesburg, Ohio, a unified cycle of finely observed tales focusing on characters inhabiting a single town. A collection of tales, no matter how closely the characters overlap or intrude on each other's stories, are not chapters contributing to a single narrative arc. A collection of tales does not a novel make.
"Linked stories," to use the vernacular more in vogue now, is a better description. I've just finished writing a collection of these myself: independent, standalone stories with occasionally recurring events and characters, including a Russian fabulist writer most famous for her own story about a housewife who converses regularly with her sugar bowl. None of these stories depends on another for its meaning, although I do hope that my loose "links" do provide some Aha! moments of resonance for the reader encountering, as Love False or True goes on, a familiar name or setting.
Elizabeth McCracken, a fine writer of both, says that a short story is a blow to the solar plexus, whereas a novel is a lingering illness you might never recover from. These are two very different conditions, and they do not usually mimic one another. The first wants you to have to catch your breath a little, upon reading the final sentence. The second moves in a slow build toward an ending that makes you sigh. I've sighed at the ends of a few stories and gasped upon finishing a novel or two, but those are the exceptions. To invoke an alternate metaphor to McCracken's, the two forms are disparate species within the same literary genus.
It's an important distinction because as the marketing of Olive Kitteridge demonstrates, novels sell better than stories, but I'm not convinced that collections can't make a comeback. To do so, stories need to be understood and celebrated for what they, uniquely, do: distill the experiences of their characters into an essence that will come sudden and sharp upon the reader, a fresh and welcome—if fleeting—scent in the otherwise ordinary air.
Tell It Slant: Essay in The Huffington Post, March 11, 2015:
It took my husband pointing it out for me to realize that both of the novels I wrote were based on crimes in the town I grew up in. It’s not that I had forgotten what inspired either book. I just didn’t think of them as having in common what they do, which is an act of violence by one member of a family against another, in the small community of my original home.
I didn’t think of it because almost fifteen years passed between the first book and the second, and because as soon as I started writing them, they weren’t about real people anymore. When my husband said what he did, I felt surprised, but I shouldn’t have: I’ve written four books of fiction, and “real life” lies at the heart of each of them. What motivates me to write a story may be the same thing that motivates you to read one. I want to inhabit someone enduring the things I am afraid of, or things I have experienced myself and want to think about, but need some distance from. Tell all the truth but tell it slant, Emily Dickinson wrote. My fiction is truth slant, or, to be more accurate, it is fact slant. The truth is where fact and fiction overlap.
Once, in a ladies’ restroom, I overheard two women talking about the death of someone they both knew. One of them said to the other, “At least she didn’t have any kids,” and the other said, “That’s the only good thing about it.” As a non-mother myself, I used my own reaction at hearing this to imagine my way into the psyche and soul of a woman who’d died alone and without children. I made up her name, her family history, her friends, her living situation, the actions she takes and their consequences – virtually everything about her -- but the truth of the story lies in those two sentences I heard exchanged between strangers.
My first novel, And Give You Peace, derives from a tragedy in a family of three sisters, like my own. I am the oldest, and that family’s oldest was in my homeroom all through high school, though we weren’t friends and I didn’t know much about her other than what everyone always knows about the most popular girls. Her youngest sister, Betsy, was on my youngest sister’s softball team. The summer before her junior year, her father shot Betsy and then himself to death. I was working as a reporter for a wire service, and when the stringer’s tip came in that there had been a murder-suicide in my town, I called police for details. I will never forget the shock I felt upon hearing Betsy’s name as the victim. Immediately I conjured an image of the teenager with a shy smile and two blond braids hanging down the front of her softball jersey. And in the next moment, I became fixated on the question that would preoccupy me for years to come: how did her two sisters bear it?
Because I wished desperately to understand what they suffered and how they managed to survive, psychically, what I was sure I could not, I wrote a novel from the point of view of the oldest of three sisters faced with the same event. I did not write the book only for myself; I hoped that others might wonder the same thing, and find value in the way I explored the question. The novel is an act of imagination and, I hope, empathy. I have no way of knowing if it mirrors, even in the smallest way, what was in my classmate’s head and heart, or her father’s or her sister Betsy’s, the day they died. But in creating my fictional character, I came to understand some of what was in her mind and heart, in the context of the situation I borrowed from real life.
I had lived away from the town for twenty years when the second crime occurred, a college student attacking his parents as they slept in their bed. His father died, and his mother was only barely alive when police discovered her and asked her if her son was responsible. She nodded, but when she emerged from a coma weeks later, she appeared to have forgotten all memory of that night, and since then she has defended her son vigorously even after the jury deliberated less than a day to convict him.
I have never met any of the people in this family, but I know the street they lived on, because it is across from the high school we all attended – Betsy, her two sisters, the convicted murderer, and me. I wrote the second novel, Lacy Eye, because I wanted to know what it felt like for the character I imagined to suspect that her child was guilty of a crime she would never comprehend. In writing the novel, I found what I was looking for – an intimate understanding of someone invested in believing what was prettier than the truth, because believing the truth would cost her more than she thought she could afford.
Tell it slant. One last truth about the intersection of fact and fiction. My first novel is not about Betsy, but I did write it with her in mind. The blond braids and the shy smile have never left me. It is probably fair to say that I wrote it in her memory. I remember her, and I can only imagine.
The Story Prize Blog -- "What's uplifting about 'depressing' fiction"
In the 47th of a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jessica Treadway, author of Please Come Back To Me (University of Georgia Press), discusses why books that seem grim to some readers can yield an exhilarating experience for others.
Lately I've been trying to figure out why a lot of novels and stories some readers find "depressing" (which is the word people always seem to use) are ones that fill other readers (like me) up—books that exhilarate us, take us over, and make us feel less alone in this conundrum of a world.
Take Olive Kitteridge, for example. That book took my breath away, quite literally, when I first read it -- having received the lucky assignment to review it for The Boston Globe—and it still does. (I checked before sitting down to write this, just in case something had changed in the meantime. Not only had nothing changed, but even knowing what was going to happen in each story didn't blunt the way Elizabeth Strout's characters and images made me have to close the book on my finger and look up, in order to absorb the power and poignancy of what I had just read.)
But the reason I felt the need to look at the book again was a Facebook post by my old friend Jane who said she was "halfway through Olive Kitteridge... so far I've found it well-written but distressing, depression about the human condition." I wrote to ask her why. She didn't see any hope in the book, she wrote back. It made her feel that the book's message was that "it's pointless—life is hard, and then you die."
"That isn't my worldview," she added.
Well, it isn't my worldview, either. So why did I feel roused by Strout's book, and stimulated to feel energetic empathy for the characters, instead of emotionally depleted by the losses and pain they suffered along the way? I asked another friend of Jane's, and mine, who'd also loved the book and she said she had been "comforted by reading another person's truth."
That summed it up for me, I realized. When I read a book like Olive Kitteridge or like Richard Yates' The Easter Parade—which warns away, in its first line ("Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life") people who want to avoid being "depressed" by the book they've just opened—I feel gratified by the privilege of bearing witness to those characters' pain, as well as to their moments of triumph and joy, fleeting though they may be. It's like being honored and entrusted with the most private confidence, being able to inhabit characters as they experience their deepest feelings, including distress.
In college I read Emile Zola's L'Assmmoir, whose heroine, Gervaise, wants only two things from life: not to be beaten, and to die in her own bed. At the end (spoiler alert!), she doesn't get either of those things. The final lines belong to the undertake as he carries her out from under the stairwell where her body has been discovered. "There, there, you're all right. Night-night, my lovely!" More than 25 years later, I still remember the electric surge of emotion I felt when I read those words—and it was positive emotion, not negative. Of course I felt grief for Gervaise. I wouldn't wish her life on anyone I cared about. But I think what I relished was being there at that final moment, along with every other reader who'd made the journey with her; somehow, our presence gave meaning to her life—and her death. (And though I'm not sure I care to spend much time exploring my own psychology in this regard, it's possible that by extension, I'm hoping that if Olive and Gervaise and the Grimes sisters have sympathetic company in whatever suffering life holds for them, then so will I.)
In my new collection—spoiler alert again—some people die. Most if not all of the characters have ended up with lives other than the ones they expected and wanted for themselves. I wouldn't presume to tell anyone how to feel after reading my stories, and I won't be surprised if my friend Jane and others find them "depressing."
But I hope others will understand that this wasn't my intention. I'm pretty sure that I have no interest, either conscious or hidden from myself, in inflicting misery on anyone under the guise of writing stories I hope will hold some meaning. I only want to write what feels true, and maybe touch a few readers who, like me find resonance —even, sometimes, radiance—in the dark.
The following essays appeared originally in the "My Back Pages" column of The Sunday Boston Globe
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"Hearing the human noise -- and wondering at its writer"
My job description says I teach creative writing, but if F. Lee Bailey ever had me on the stand, I'd break down pretty quickly to concede that a lot of what we talk about in my classes is what, and how, to read. I know which books and stories have helped me become a better writer. I believe we write as much to communicate as to create, and it's in those moments of recognizing ourselves on the page -- the internal "aha" -- that we learn how words and their arrangements traverse the tunnel between souls.
These private, intuitive lessons are far more valuable to me than the specific rules I was taught when in school and in search of my own writing voice. When I hear students talk about the struggle to come up with plots, I remember one of my teachers stressing the importance of dramatic action. Action is what makes the reader want to keep turning pages, the teacher said. This made sense, but when I tried to build stories on plot scaffolds -- car chases, kidnappings, discoveries in the dark -- they didn't hold up because the stories were just hanging there, untethered to their own hearts or mine.
Then I came across Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing." The only action in the story is in the title: A woman stands before an unidentified questioner, ironing clothes while she talks. The rhythm of the iron back and forth punctuates her narrative about the baby she bore and raised in poverty. The story is propelled not by her physical action, but by the expedition of her conscience -- through memory, confusion, confession and self-forgiveness, coming finally to a prayer for the troubled, now-adolescent daughter who was always loved but "seldom smiled at." "And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total?" Olsen's narrator asks. "I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to start again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped." Ultimately, the mother entreats her listener: "Only help her to know -- make it so there is cause for her to know -- that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron." Having barely taken a physical step away from the ironing board while talking, she is nonetheless moved -- like the reader -- by the end of the story.
The same kind of invisible revelation concludes Raymond Carver's story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." The action consists of two married couples sitting around on a sunny afternoon that turns gradually dimmer, drinking gin and trying to figure out what love means, or what it is. When the gin is gone, one of the wives says, "Now what?" The narrator tells us: "I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark."
How can any teacher instruct any student in the use of language to render "the human noise"? We learn to write the same way we learn to speak. We listen to the people -- from Chekhov to Chopin to Cheever -- who already know how to do it. At first we imitate them; eventually, we come to sound like ourselves.
Once apprentice writers have the grasp of a plot or a voice, they often wrestle with the challenge of how to represent chronological time. Somehow it feels like cheating to make a narrative leap over a chasm of years, to take a character from age nine to twenty-nine without filling in the gaps. The trick is to just do it, with faith and boldness; you can convince a reader of anything, if you hit the right notes with authority. In Katherine Anne Porter's "The Grave," nine-year-old Miranda and her twelve-year-old brother, Paul, are playing in the family cemetery, discovering trinkets of treasure and shooting at small game. Paul kills a rabbit and, skinning it, sees that the animal was on the verge of giving birth. Miranda pushes forward to touch one of the fetuses, and begins to tremble without knowing why. "Having seen, she felt at once as if she had known all along. The very memory of her former ignorance faded, she had always known just this," Porter writes. Paul panics because he believes his father will punish him, and he swears his little sister to secrecy. "Don't you tell," he warns her.
"Miranda never told, she did not even wish to tell anybody," Porter continues. "She thought about the whole worrisome affair with confused unhappiness for a few days. Then it sank quietly into her mind and was heaped over by accumulated thousands of impressions, for nearly twenty years. One day she was picking her path among the puddles and crushed refuse of a market street in a strange city of a strange country, when without warning, plain and clear in its true colors as if she looked through a frame upon a scene that had not stirred nor changed since the moment it happened, the episode of that far-off day leaped from its burial place before her mind's eye. She was so reasonlessly horrified she halted suddenly staring, the scene before her eyes dimmed by the vision back of them."
One is grateful that Porter published this story in 1934, before contemporary psychology and literary workshop lingo might have influenced a lesser writer to say that Miranda had a flashback. What is the point of literature, if not to provide translation for the emotional shorthand that gets us through each day? The collision of mystery and innocence, which Miranda first felt as a child observing the dead rabbits, sleeps in her soul for the next two decades until it is awakened by the "mingled sweetness and corruption" of the foreign marketplace. Like a literary surgeon, Porter has gone into this soul, extracted two moments that define and distinguish Miranda's experience as a human being, and laid them down for the reader to experience along with the character. What we learn from this transcription is profound, but it can't be conveyed through a lesson plan. Together, my students and I listen to the writers who have taken the human noise -- in all its truth and dissonance -- and made it sing.
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"The child's-eye view of life's truths is often the sharpest"
A few weeks ago, children in my neighborhood gathered with their parents before setting off in a clamorous pack for the first day of school. The kids stood around clutching fresh notebooks and satchels, hiding anticipation under nervous smiles and shifting feet. Except for one boy, a new kindergartner, who grabbed the hose fixture at the side of the house and held on for all he was worth. He shrieked in protest even as his mother tried to pry his fingers from the coil and, when that didn't work, pulled the boy's legs straight out and parallel to the ground, as if she were fighting another child for possession of a prized doll.
The scene made me laugh, but beneath the laughter lay the rich pain of recognition. I felt the way I do whenever I encounter, in a work of fiction written for grown-ups, a child's inner life depicted so vividly that it seems the author has reached into my heart, along with every other former child's, and excavated a universal but forgotten ore. There is a special poignancy in reading the experience of a child when it is rendered perfectly on the page, because whatever we witness there -- betrayal, pride, the consciousness of love -- is being felt by a human being for the first time, and it reminds us of our own earliest prickings upon those shocking emotional swords. The boy across the street made me think of my own first day of kindergarten, all of us milling outside the big double doors of the classroom and letting go of our mothers' hands as our names were called. Every one of my first days since then -- classes, jobs -- has been a variation of that first blind stumble away from security and toward those mysterious doors. After the First Day of school, there is no other.
As an adult, I relish primal moments in stories and novels, because they keep my own (often painful) memories company. When I read Richard Yates' story "Fun with a Stranger," from his collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, I realized that the character of the third-grade teacher, Miss Snell, reminded me of a teacher from my own elementary school days. Miss Snell is an aging, cheerless taskmaster whose pupils are consumed with envy for students in the other third-grade class who get to have a party, complete with presents from their beautiful teacher, Mrs. Cleary, on the day before Christmas vacation. John Gerhardt and Miss Snell's other students bravely assert that Miss Snell is having a party, too, though they are not really so sure.
On the appointed day, Miss Snell's class files in to see a cluster of small wrapped items on the teacher's desk. "The little pile of gifts made everything all right; the children had only to look at them to know that there was nothing to be embarrassed about, after all. Miss Snell had come through." They imagine soldiers and miniature dolls. But when the packages are distributed, they all reveal cheap pencil erasers. "Nobody knew what to do, and for what seemed a full minute the room was silent except for the dwindling rustle of tissue paper. Miss Snell stood at the head of the class, her clasped fingers writhing like dry worms at her waist, her face melted into the soft, tremulous smile of a giver. She looked completely helpless."
When the bell rings, John Gerhardt runs out into the rain -- and freedom -- as quickly as possible, so that "there would be no need to think about any of it any more." I thought of my own teacher, also an elderly "Miss," who returned from a trip to colonial Virginia to tell us that she would be showing slides from her vacation after school that day, for anyone who was interested. My friend Luann and I, dawdling in the hallways after the bell, happened to look into the classroom to see the teacher fiddling with the projector as she waited. Nobody had come. We considered going in, but instead we headed for the nearest exit like the students in Miss Snell's class, who "ran with the exhilaration of escape." It was the first time I remember knowing I could have done something to make someone feel better -- with no sacrifice to myself -- and didn't. In Yates' story I find not necessarily absolution but at least the assurance that I am not alone.
John Cheever's "The Sorrows of Gin" captures eight-year-old Amy's first experience of guilt as it dawns through denial. Troubled by her parents' drinking, Amy had emptied their gin into the sink. Upon finding the empty bottle, her father fires the housekeeper, roaring that he is "through with paying people to come in here and drink my liquor." Amy watches this scene from the piano bench, where she has gone to practice. "In the middle of 'Reflects d'Automne' it struck her that she was the one who had emptied the gin bottle," Cheever writers. "Her perplexity was so intense that she stopped playing, but her feelings did not go beyond perplexity, although she did not have the strength to continue playing the piano."
Reading this, I am transported back to age five and a trip to the emergency room with my mother and little sister, who had broken her arm. My mother told the nurse that my sister had tripped and fallen on something -- she wasn't sure what -- and it was only then that I realized I had left one of my Barbie dolls smack in the middle of the stairs. When the doctor came, he thought I was the one with the fracture, because I was crying harder than my sister was.
The most profound connection I've felt to a child in fiction was to Eugene Gant, protagonist of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. We meet Eugene when he is only a few months old, bereft of language or any other way to communicate with "the huge leering heads that bent hideously into his crib."
"He saw himself an inarticulate stranger, an amusing little clown, to be dandled and nursed by these enormous and remote figures," Wolfe writes. "He had been sent from one mystery into another: somewhere within or without his consciousness he heard a great bell ringing faintly, as if it sounded undersea, and as he listened, the ghost of memory walked through his mind, and for a moment he felt that he had almost recovered what he had lost."
Is there anyone for whom the ringing of this "great bell" does not reverberate, however distantly? I will never forget what I felt as I read those words a few years ago, sitting in a hospital room at the bedside of my dying grandfather, who was born in 1908, eight years after Eugene Gant. My grandfather, about to be "sent from one mystery to another," was on a respirator and couldn't speak. But Wolfe's evocation of Eugene's infant psyche -- the sensations and perceptions that transcend reason, and allow us to understand each other's human-ness without words -- gave me great solace and a sense of being filled up, at a time when I had felt only loss.
I can only hope that my young friend across the street will someday find similar connections and comfort. As soon as he lets go of the hose long enough to learn how to read.
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"The sister and brother act never leaves the stage"
When I was six years old and my sister Molly four, I scribbled a pencil figure on the wall of our bedroom, next to the bottom bunk (I slept on top, of course). Then I called my mother in to show her what Molly had done. My mother scolded her, but what I remember more vividly is that my sister never objected -- she didn't tell our mother that she hadn't drawn on the wall, let alone that I had. Of course, her silence took all the fun out of it for me.
I don't know exactly what was at work in either of our minds, but I am sure it had to do with out sisterhood. Jealousy, pride, need, loyalty, mutual intuition: These are siblings' stock in trade. And ever since Cain slew Abel for offering the better gift, the relationship between brothers and sisters has made for drama both on and off the page.
George Eliot knew this when, in The Mill on the Floss, she penned the story of Maggie and Tom Tulliver, who found peace from their troubled mortal union only by dying together. Faulkner knew it when he created the tempestuous Compson clan in The Sound and the Fury. On the more positive end of the spectrum, think of Harper Lee's Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird, or of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. (Was there ever a girl with a sister who didn't read Beth's death scene without dropping a tear on the page?)
My favorite pair of fictional siblings comes from Betty Smith's classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which tells the story of Francie Nolan and her younger brother, Neeley, as children in Williamsburg, circa World War I. According to neighborhood custom, on Christmas Eve all the poor kids gather around the unsold Christmas trees. The merchant "chucks" trees at the standing children, and if they manage not to fall down under the impact, the tree is theirs.
Francie has picked out the biggest tree to try for, but when she steps forward everyone laughs, and the merchant says she's too little. But she pulls Neeley forward and insists, "Me and my brother -- we're not too little together." Impressed, the man throws the tree at them, and to Francie "the whole world stood still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came toward her blotting out all memory of her ever having lived. There was nothing -- nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went to his knees but she pulled him up firecely before he could go down."
They win the tree, and the congratulations of everyone on the street. It is a triumphant moment for the Nolan kids in a life otherwise characterized by want.
Many contemporary short stories feature pairs of same-sex siblings in which one -- quite often the narrator -- is the self-appointed caretaker of the other. One of the most poignant stories I have ever read is Amy Bloom's "Silver Water," from the collection Come To Me, in which Violet recounts the experience of living with an older sister, Rose, who suffered a psychotic break at age fifteen. "Silver Water" follows in the literary tradition of James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," in which the narrator feels responsible for saving his younger brother from a life of heroin and despair. The feeling goes back as far as he can remember: "I had been there when he was born; and I heard the first words he had ever spoken. When he started to walk, he walked from our mother straight to me. I caught him just before he fell when he took the first steps he ever took in this world."
Susan Minot's collection "Monkeys" is a collection of stories about the seven Vincent children and their parents. "The Navigator" depicts the family on a riverside picnic after the kids have staged a breakfast intervention with their alcoholic father, who is deeply hung over from a blackout binge of the night before. After Dad promises to stop drinking, their mother brightly proposes the picnic. It's a beautiful day, and last night's crisis has been left behind on the shore. "It was quiet and pleasant and there was no noise except the drone of a motorboat somewhere out on the water.
"Then they all heard the sound.
"Some heads jerked toward Dad; some looked down.... Mum didn't move, lying on the life jacket, eyes hidden behind her sunglasses. Sophie hugged her shins and bit her knee. Gus's neck was twisted into a tortured position; he glared at Dad's back.
"...The silence was no longer tranquil."
For the Vincent kids, the crack of a can of beer being popped open is as loud and dire as gunfire. Minot portrays their collective dismay with a stunning subtlety that makes the reader's heart drop in empathy for what they've all wished for so fervently, and again lost.
Fiction, of course, is not the only literary realm in which writers explore the benefits and drawbacks of a sibling bond. Maria Flook, in her unusual new memoir My Sister Life, tells about growing up in the shadow of her absent older sister, who disappeared at age fourteen, when the author was twelve. Flook writes: "With Karen gone, I was left vulnerable to my own reckless actions, like a bouncing ball without its backboard.... I thought that what had happened to Karen could happen to me. I recognized a mysterious 'sister life' unfolding parallel to mine.... Karen and I were one."
In life and literature, the relationship among brothers and sisters can be fraught with pain, disappointment, envy, and guilt, among other emotions. Our siblings are not always there to stand beside us when the tree is thrown; sometimes, they are the ones doing the throwing. But perhaps Maria Flook has the last word when she notes, of her ties to her sister, that "little remnants of her soul had entwined with mine." The knot may be loosened, but it is never quite undone.
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The following essay appeared in Post Road, No. 13:
Richard Yates' The Easter Parade
Despite its festive title, anyone looking for a light read will know right off the bat to put Richard Yates' The Easter Parade back on the shelf. "Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life," the novel begins, and it goes downhill from there.
But for those of us who don't flinch from and even find pleasure in fiction about the hardest truths, the book is an unadulterated treat. Could you expect any less from the author whose signature collection of short stories is called Eleven Kinds of Loneliness?
The Easter Parade is the story of Sarah and Emily Grimes, whose parents divorce in 1930, when the girls are nine and five. They adore their father, Walter, although it is a disappointing shock when they learn that he is not, as they believed, and important editor for the New York Sun, but "only a copy-desk man." The girls' mother, Pookie, is a budding alcoholic (later in the book, the disorder will become full-fledged) who devotes her life to chasing, for herself and her daughters, the quality of dress and bearing she refers to as "flair."
When Sarah, the elder sister, marries dashing Tony Wilson -- who grew up in England and speaks with the requisite British accent -- it seems that half of Pookie's dream for her daughters has come true. Tony and Sarah move to Long Island, where his family lives on property containing a bungalow for the newlyweds and an ugly, mildewing main house his parents can't afford to fix up properly. Despite the dilapidation, Pookie, with her penchant for seeing only what she wants to see, names the place "Gread Hedges." (It's no wonder that toward the end of her life, addled by alcohol and senility and confined to a state asylum, she insists that she is the mother-in-law of American royalty, by virtue of Emily's phantom marriage to John F. Kennedy.)
It is Emily whose perspective we inhabit throughout the book, following her career as a student at Barnard -- during which she loses her virginity in Central Park to a soldier whose name she doesn't know -- and then as a bookseller; the wife of a sadist; the lover of a failed poet; and, finally, as a copywriter for an advertising agency. In 1961 she is 36, and, like her mother and sister before her, she has embraced the comforts of alcohol, though it doesn't impair her ability to hold down her job until she is nearly fifty. By the end of the book, she has lost everyone and everything except a connection with her nephew, Peter, and even that seems threatened. Yates closes the novel with the portrait of a woman ravaged by despair and memory, and the conclusion leaves us with a pain enriched by having borne witness to her entire troubled life.
Why read such a book? More to the point, why is it not a depressing experience for those of us who love and recommend it?
The answer lies in Yates's ability to mine the moments of his characters' lives for the fleeting sweetnesses that make them not only bearable, but --while they last -- triumphant, such as the girls' playing with paper dolls and having the prettiest ones sing "Look for the Silver Lining," or the solider's kissing of Emily on top of a Fifth Avenue bus: "the first kiss of its kind, ever."
Indeed, the title is derived from a photograph of Tony and Sarah in New York's Easter Parade of 1941, which appears in The New York Times and captures them "smiling at each other like the very soul of romance in the April sunshine." Yates's book reminds us that even the saddest of lives contain such brilliance, and that it is there to discover and celebrate if we look hard enough.