The Things We Keep 2

Is love summoned from your brain or heart? Can love trigger new connections in your brain? (New Jersey, present-day): Sometimes an author’s endorsement sways you to pick up a novel you’d otherwise pass over. Such was the case with Graeme Simsion’s testimonial prominently placed on the updated cover of Sally Hepworth’s 2015 novel, The Things We Keep, out tomorrow in paperback. For when the author of two charming romance novels (The Rosie Project, continued in The Rosie Effect) about endearing professor Don Tillman’s social challenges (Asperger’s-like syndrome) views Hepworth’s love story of two significantly challenged characters diagnosed with early-onset dementia as appealing to “our common humanity, capacity for love, and sense of humor,” you take notice. Could it capture our hearts with hopefulness and tenderness rather than crush us with sadness? I had to find out. That it does so on such a disheartening subject is noteworthy.

A few years back, I read another novel depicting Alzheimer’s. Then my curiosity came from reading the author spent 10 years writing his debut and sold it for $1 million. The novel (We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas) renders the ravages of the disease on scientist Ed and his caregiving wife Eileen so realistically and graphically I found it too depressing; could barely finish it, let alone blog about it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. In fact, it was a bestseller with numerous accolades. What it does mean is what we read and like or dislike can shake us up when a story hits home too personally. For me it did. My mother had dementia caused by primary-progressive multiple sclerosis, which in its advanced stages mirrored scenes detailed in Thomas’ novel.

My mother’s dementia was rare – 5% – like the two types of younger-adult dementia afflicting Anna, 38, and Luke, 41, in The Things We Keep. Because of different ages and conditions, thankfully I didn’t recognize my mother much in this intriguing page-turner. The notion that two cognitively challenged people discover profound connectedness and love in an assistive-living facility is fantastical. That dementia, which “steals things – memories, speech, other abilities,” doesn’t steal your ability to love is as hopeful as it can get.

The title turns out to be more provocative than first thought. Initially, the things we keep seemed to answer yes to the author’s interesting question: “Can you love someone you don’t remember?” (Anna can’t even remember Luke’s name. She conjures him up by his distinguishing feature: Young Man.) But after watching the mind-boggling documentary, The Brain That Changes Itself, based on Dr. Norman Doidge’s book, on the pioneering work in brain science called “neuroplasticity,” the title took on a far-reaching interpretation. Again, it answered yes to another of the novel’s probing questions: Is “love like a river – it wants to flow off. If one path is blocked, it simply finds another”?

The Brain That Changes Itself – Full documentary

Reading those lines felt entirely fictional, a way of lending credence to what happens to Anna, more so than Luke. (Luke’s type of dementia, frontotemporal, attacks speech first). Even with severe memory loss, Anna continues to respond to him emotionally, passionately.

The documentary’s assertion spins the title on its head. Supported by amazing real life stories, it demonstrates (contrary to 400 years of thinking) that our brains are not “hard-wired” but “plastic” – “changing all the time.” Unused areas of the brain can be opened up – “unmasking dormant pathways” – echoing the novelist’s supposition! Thus, Anna’s potent love for Luke can be seen as awakening sleeping regions of her brain when other parts are impaired. The title could mean what we keep in the brain is far greater than what we know, until something miraculous happens.

Was the author aware she dreamed up a story at the cutting-edge of neurological science?

Luke is less known to us since much of the novel is told through Anna’s voice. Yet, all we really need to know is he possesses a charming sense of self, kindness, sensitivity, and praiseful protectiveness of Anna. (Oh, and he’s “sexy”!) He is her reason to live.

“Love is a continuous state,” Don Tillman says. Is it? For whenever Anna experiences Luke it’s all newness and freshness – no continuous memories. What is continuous is instinctive feelings regardless of cognitive function. The novel continually explores our capacity to love and where these powerful emotions flow from.

To appreciate the rapid deterioration of Anna’s dementia, the novel is structured by time and voice. It opens in Anna’s voice “fifteen months ago” when she looks and sounds like a “normal, forgetful person”; then switches to the present in a second female voice, Eve’s, who allows us to compare before versus now; then reverts back to an advancing past: 14 months ago, 13 months ago, and so on until 3 months ago. Like the disease, the novel feels like a ticking clock.

The second female voice, Eve’s, enters when she’s hired as cook for the small, private facility Anna and Luke are living at, Rosalind House. Anna was a paramedic. That brave job plays out in her gutsy behavior to voluntarily move into the home after an incident occurs at her twin brother Jack’s house, where he’s been living since her diagnosis at age 31.

Responsibility for Anna’s care fell to Jack. Their mother passed away from the same disease (which means Anna believes she knows her dim future) and their father deserted twenty years ago when Mom was diagnosed (ugh!). Jack adores Anna, is fervently well-intentioned. But as the story of Anna’s and Luke’s love blossoms, you’ll see he’s painfully misguided.

A third female voice infrequently pops in: Eve’s perceptive, 7-year-old daughter, Clementine. It’s a tricky thing writing believably in a young voice. In an author interview at the back of the book, Hepworth says she likes writing multi-generational stories. (She also tells us the inspiration for the novel.) It helps to know this, since Clem’s prose sounded too grown-up, though she’s had to grow up quickly due to the difficult circumstances that brought her mother to Rosalind House.

Thirteen residents are cared for at Rosalind House. Anna also refers to them by their obvious features, giving us short-handed glimpses of them in the earlier days of her disease when she’s lucid, observant, frank, and witty. A resident stand-out is Baldy. That’s Bert, a gruff widower still talking to his wife Myrna he lost 5o years ago. Alzheimer’s is characterized by moments of clarity, so sometimes he understands Myrna’s gone. It’s his way of keeping her memory alive. Other characters bear nicknames and sympathetic/not-so-sympathetic stories like Southern Lady, Angus the gardener, and Eric, the disagreeable manager.

Bert’s the resident most brightened by “young lady” Clem, and she with him. Their relationship is one example of how the novel shows us how two vastly differing people can benefit from one another.

Another example is Eve’s deepening friendship and insight into Anna’s lifeline-need for Luke. Her benevolence and the bold steps she takes to help Anna occur most importantly at night when Anna’s restless, can’t sleep, roams. “Night-restlessness,” agitation, and confusion are other disease symptoms. These (and sadly more) unfold over the timeline, which seems to parallel the progressive stages of the disease: early, middle, and late.

The novel is a departure for me as the prose is not as affecting as the poignancy of the messaging and the implications the words convey. The novel screams Live In The Moment. “Life is too short” is a phrase that may sound cliché and not earth-shattering, but the message is. A message common to all. That ultimately maybe all that matters is “right now.”

I hope readers will watch the brain documentary. Presuming the brain can stretch/adapt, then the possibilities put forth in The Things We Keep are awe-inspiring. Horizons gifting us all hope.

Lorraine

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The Echo of Twilight 1

A lady and her lady’s maid – an unconventional relationship (England and Scotland, WWI and Interwar periods, 1914-1925): What better way to kick-off a new year of blogging than to start with an historical novel by the same author whose historical debut inspired this blog nearly 4 years ago. For The Echo of Twilight echoes the enchanting prose of British novelist Judith Kinghorn’s The Last Summer, also set at the brink of WWI.

Whereas the first novel transports us to a country estate in the south of England, Kinghorn’s newest (her 4th) takes us to two “pristine and loved” estates: Birling Hall, shining brightly in northern England’s Northumberland (the author’s birthplace) and Delnasay, atmospheric in the “purple mist” of the Scottish Highlands, where so much of the novel’s emotional heart happens.

Echoes of Downton Abbey reverberate here too. With a twist that’s central to the plot. For the customary relationship between a beautiful lady of two grand houses – Lady Ottoline Campbell – and her pretty lady’s maid, Pearl, is intense and complicated, growing in dependency and entanglement. Part servant, part dear friend, part mother/daughterly, theirs is a closeness that strengthens, shifts, struggles, and changes over time and circumstances. Roller-coaster emotions that seem to parallel the timeline of the devastating war – before, during, and after. As such, we see their liaison as sweet innocence in the summer before the war; followed by great pride and honor of dutiful service as Britain gears up to enter the war; then a clinging to each other as the war rages on; later a hardening as the war takes its toll; and a long-lasting aftermath.

British WWI Recruitment Poster
via Wikimedia Commons

Told in Pearl’s refined voice, most of the novel ensues over six years in three Parts. Parts I and II shape four years of Pearl’s life in domestic service, opening when she’s 23 after nine years of service positions, searching for a place to belong (“a small star in transit”). She finds it as a lady’s maid to Lady Ottoline, who treats Pearl as “someone relevant.” Part III takes place over two years post-war when Pearl moves to London and gains employment at the high-class Selfridge’s department store, echoing another British TV drama, Mr. Selfridge. An Epilogue illuminates five more years.

It’s important to highlight the culmination of Pearl’s domestic service at the end of WWI for it coincides with the historical ushering in of the rise of feminism and a changing society. Historically, this is when Britain granted the right to vote to all men and to women over 30.

Which means that besides the winning prose, the author’s strength lies in seamlessly weaving historical details and themes (and evocative landscapes) into an interesting, informative, fast-moving plot. Many faces of many themes run throughout: an “upstairs/downstairs” hierarchical class system; powerful loyalties to those served at home and to country; loneliness, loss, grief, and love. Love of family, friends, colleagues, and romantic love. A profound and moving love story that’s Pearl’s, but like everything else Ottoline is ensnarled in it too.

War is rumored when we meet Pearl, who’s “looking for love and home” and “betterment.” She’s on her way to Lady Ottoline’s beloved 14th century stone estate, having interviewed and accepted the prized position as her lady’s maid. Exalted because it “took a very superior sort of girl to be a lady’s maid.” Pearl prides herself on being that girl despite her emotionally affecting childhood, driving one of two unspoken mysteries.

That mystery is the identity of Pearl’s father. She’s never met him because her unwed mother committed suicide the day she was born. (Pearl was raised by her Aunt Kitty.) The other mystery that tugs at us surrounds the man Pearl falls madly in love with in Scotland: Ralph Stedman, a painter and Ottoline’s cousin, who lives in a cottage on the estate’s “10,000 acres of rivers, woods, hills, and fields.” These mysteries turn pages.

Some of my favorite lyricism comes when Pearl realizes she’s found the happiness she’s only dreamed of:

“As I gazed out across the glen, the river, beyond the alders and groves of silver birch to the mountains, the peace was overwhelming, newly extraordinary, deeper and more powerful than anything I’d known. And with it came a sense of belonging, a sort of contentment and connectedness. And I thought, even if nothing else happened in my life, this was enough: this sky, these hills, those high-up purples and blues, that dark bird’s wing, those feathery clouds and him.”

As the war heightens and darkens Pearl’s and Ottoline’s lives, so goes their relationship. “I need you,” blurts Ottoline, for whom Pearl responds faithfully and gratefully, reacting to her lady’s maternal warmth and kindnesses.

We’re told some downstairs staff are jealous of their exceptional relationship. Two downstairs characters touchingly prove otherwise: Rodney Watts, the butler, and Mrs. Lister, head cook. They will remind you of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Patmore of Downton Abbey. The Lagonda motor car featured in Ottoline’s shaky driving skills (reflective of her erratic behavior), and Pearl’s chauffeuring role will also bring back scenes from that PBS Masterpiece show.

The rest of the upstairs family includes Lord Hector Campbell, whose fuzzy position in the Foreign Office necessitates stretches of time spent in London, particularly during the war effort; and sons Hugo, 21, Oxford-schooled, and Billy, 19, an Eton student, who we come to know best and care most about as he’s the golden boy Ottoline’s acutely attached to.

Pearl’s initial impressions were of a “very happy household” where every day felt “like Christmas.” Although, she did sense an “ineffable sadness” about her ladyship, which surfaces in ways good and bad.

On the balance between happiness and sadness, the author has crafted a novel of a nation at war that never forgets to remind us of the beauty of life, nature, and experiencing true love.

Speaking of love, if you love historical novels, this one, I think, will inspire your new year’s resolution to read more in 2017!

Lorraine

PS My last post on Victoria cited another PBS Masterpiece show, a mini-series based on the novel. Update on when it airs: January 15th. Also: After Queen Victoria’s reign, King George V became the next British monarch. Thus, The Echo of Twilight follows the historical timeline of British succession. Mentioned is the King’s Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, who made the momentous decision to enter the war, and Lord Kitchener, his Secretary of State for War.

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Victoria 2

A young Queen Victoria – four early years in the life of the second longest serving monarch in British history (1835 – 1839, Kensington and Buckingham Palace):  It’s a thought-provoking political time to be reading Victoria, British bestselling author Daisy Goodwin’s third historical novel set during the Victorian era.

I say this because Alexandrina Victoria’s ascension to the throne at the tender age of 18, after her uncle King William IV died, provoked tremendous anxiety and skepticism of her ability to govern during “uncertain times,” reminiscent of the fears and distrust about President-elect Donald Trump’s capacity to lead.  Similarly, early on in Queen Victoria’s reign, “the first mass movement driven by the working classes” (known as the Chartist Movement) sprang up, resonant of the fervent concerns of America’s working class that fueled Trump’s victory.

While this is not a political blog, Victoria is a political book that sends a timely message about duty to country above everything else, seen most impressively through the heart-tugging, dazzling character of Lord Melbourne.  He was her first Prime Minister.  He also became the young queen’s Private Secretary, her most trusted and influential advisor and defender.  Theirs was a deepening relationship that, for me, was the delicious aspect of the novel.

Melbourne, about fifty, initially served as a father figure (Victoria had lost hers).  Then he became her dearest companion, most comfortably as her riding partner.  From there, their relationship evolved to something more alluring, an emotional closeness that disturbed nearly everyone, spurning rumors and schemes to find her a suitable husband.  But it’s Melbourne, with his “arresting green eyes” – a “stealer of hearts” – who steals ours.

A man who didn’t have “the happiness he deserves,” so we can’t help but like and appreciate him, who put country first no matter the personal sacrifice, qualities of character I feel we saw very little of during the 2016 political campaign.  “I don’t believe in much,” he confessed.  “But there is one thing I do believe in, and that is the British Constitution, in all its tattered glory.”  Melbourne’s significance to the fledgling, untested queen – his encouragement, candor, counsel, integrity, affection, and charm – are standouts.

Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years.  So I also found it interesting Goodwin chose to focus only on Victoria from ages 16 through 20: two years before she was bequeathed the Crown to the first two years of her dynasty.  The novel shows us why.

These were transformative years, giving us context into understanding Victoria’s temperament and the challenges facing her.  She was small-framed and short at 4 ft. 11 inches.  The crown, throne, silverware all too big.  More significantly, it was “hard to be regal when everyone could see the top of your head,” she says, but Lord Melbourne tells her she’s “every inch a queen.”  He’s wonderfully steadfast in these lovely proclamations about her “natural dignity.” (“There was something regal about the resolute tilt of her head and the steady pace at which she walked.”)

Those early years enlighten us to the origins of Victoria’s feisty, independent spirit, which propelled her resolve through a rocky period of inexperience, unsureness, scandals, and crises.  Her determination is seen, for instance, in her tough treatment of her controlling mother and of her mother’s odious, jockeying-for-power confidante, Sir John Conway.

Those two princess years, depicted in a Prologue, reveal a very lonely girl, overly protected, isolated, and friendless, so much so her upbringing is termed the “Kensington System.” Resentment towards her mother, Duchess of Kent, formerly a German princess, and her deceitful Comptroller and advisor, Conway, come to fruition the moment Victoria becomes “Her Majesty the Queen.”  She’s overcome by the “thrill in being able to do what she pleases,” which she does when it comes to both of them.  Bright spots in Drina’s (a pet name) childhood were her devoted governess, Baroness Lehzen, and attachment to her spaniel, Dash.  Both play meaningful roles when Victoria is anointed Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.  Those first two monarch years encompass around 400 pages, flowing in short chapters divided into Books 1 through 4.

Yet, googling to get a sense of the breadth and happenings during the span of Victoria’s lengthy sovereignty, I found other curious historical facts that could have been featured in a novel on the monarch, such as six attempted assassinations and mothering nine children who married other European royals, producing 37 great-grandchildren and the nickname “grandmother of Europe.”  The source and inspiration for the novel were Victoria’s diaries: 62 million words!  Obviously, an extraordinary amount of material.  Since Victoria was a pleasure to read, seems the novelist made a smart decision.

It’s also a perfect time to read Victoria, before PBS Masterpiece Theater airs Victoria, an eight-part miniseries, in January 2017 in the same Sunday night timeslot as Downton Abbey.  Goodwin also wrote the screenplay.  Her interests and talent for creating rich-in-historical details fiction and film surely stem, in part, from her study of history at Cambridge University and film production at Columbia University as a Harkness Fellow.

The novel offers insight into how British government and royalty works – befuddling rules of succession, the “delicate relationship between Monarch and Parliament,” protocol, ceremonial duties, charity obligations, and the like.

At times, I longed for a royalty/family tree as there’s a multitude of royal and non-hereditary characters to keep track of, some good but many awfully ambitious and conspiring with their own political agendas, which seems ordained by laws and a class system bound by rules and expectations.  You will, though, keep the most important, influential ones clear in your mind as the author brings them to life.

Still, I thought readers might welcome a few images, below, of some key characters who were historical figures in this expansive period in British life that came to be known as the Victorian era.  This allows me to not give much away, yet perhaps gives you a glimpse into the people and setting the author immerses us in.  In short, this is not a light summer read.  Rather, it’s a meticulously rendered, historically intriguing one.

Victoria broke the longest period I’ve gone without blogging.  Characterized by too many dark, depressing, angry books, plots and prose I couldn’t praise as enchanted.  Some were page-turners, others I couldn’t finish.  Is this also a reflection of the times?

Another reason to read this novel now.  Yes, there was unrest, cutthroat machinations, and wrongdoings.  But there was also grace under enormous pressure and odds, courage, benevolence, and a refreshing allegiance to country told keenly and in uplifting prose.  A gift for all of us this holiday season.  Lorraine

Young Queen and her beloved dog Dash

Lord Melbourne, P.M., Private Secretary, Confidante, Companion

Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, widowed

Sir John Conroy, nefarious advisor to the Queen’s mother

Grand Duke Alexander of Russia, an admirer of the Queen

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, son of Queen Victoria’s uncle, Leopold I of Belgium, therefore Victoria’s cousin, whom Leopold burns for the young Queen to marry

 

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Behind Closed Doors 1

A man, a marriage too perfect – BEWARE! (Spring Eaton, twenty miles outside London, present-day): I hadn’t expected to be drawn into Behind Closed Doors, a UK bestseller destined for the movies. I don’t like the thriller genre largely because it’s driven by plot not prose. Two months ago, I discovered a psychologically suspenseful novel with exceptionally good prose, so I’ve been open to reading more. Often disappointed by publishing hype, this psychological thriller’s hype rings true. “Unputdownable” rings so true I must warn you if you read this novel at night you might have trouble sleeping. It’s that psychologically jarring. Also true is the praise that it’s “incredibly well-written,” which brings me to why I’m blogging about it, why I got so caught up in it.

The narrator’s voice – Grace, married 18 months ago to a lawyer who never lost a case and resembles George Clooney – flows so effortlessly it feels as if she’s sitting by your side confiding her worst fears and opening up her good heart to you. Jack Angel – a surname he chose, a sadistic joke! – doesn’t have a heart, even though he’s “superficially charming” and can “strike observers as remarkably normal,” to quote one definition of a psychopath.

So, this isn’t a novel that just grips you at the opening; every page grips you. For you’re trying to figure out if someone could be this deranged and this clever to deceive not only your fiancé but everyone. You will be impressed by the intricate web of plausible deceit Jack – and British debut novelist B. A. Paris – have spun throughout. Which is why the novel scares us. Could this really happen in a marriage that seems so perfect to anyone looking in? Could a man so perfectly handsome, elegant, and gentlemanly be this emotionally sick to do what Jack does to Grace and has planned?

Leaving nothing to chance, he gives nothing away until the perfect woman comes along to execute his long-seated madness. He snaps her up in a matter of months. By the time he unveils enough of himself to her it’s too late, for he’s made sure there’s no escape.

The word perfect is effectively used, repeatedly. Perfect first appears on line 5 of the first chapter, titled “Present.” All chapters take place in the Present or Past, a clean design that has us glued to the deft and twisted machinations Jack frames, continually boxing Grace in.

Jack is the first to pronounce the word “perfect,” a response placed right on page 1 so we’re hooked, clued in something’s definitely not perfect in this household. Grace has accidently knocked into a bottle of champagne in the kitchen while dinner guests are in another room. She’s “hoping he [Jack] won’t have noticed how nervous I am.” Jack does, of course, because as we’ve already established, he doesn’t miss a trick. Why should a loving husband be pleased his newly married wife is anxious?

The dinner guests are two couples: Diane and Adam (he hailing from Jack’s law firm) and Esther and Rufus, new to the neighborhood and the group, emphasizing these are not Grace’s close friends. The dinner scene introduces the second, third, fourth, and fifth time the word perfect appears, with reference to Esther:

“I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect lie.”

Hmm. By page 2 it’s confirmed: something’s horribly amiss!

The strongest word for the extreme opposite of perfect – nightmare, psychological torture, hell – depicts Grace’s predicament and husband. Worse, Jack is so frighteningly “brilliant” and cruel the only person who knows the marriage is a horrific lie is Grace. She finds that out on her wedding night in Thailand, revealed around page 85. That’s when it hits us Jack is clearly not who he purports himself to be. Grace is not only far from home, she’s far, far away from being “the luckiest person in the world.” Tragically, Jack’s old-fashioned manners and handsomeness wooed her. “He made me feel special, cherished, and best of all, he adored Millie.”

Millie is Grace’s younger sister, born with Down’s syndrome. Her parents didn’t want any children, let alone Millie. So when Grace meets Jack in a park when she’s with Millie and he dances with Millie, Grace falls under his wicked spell. Jack is awfully accepting of Millie, too willing to offer that when Millie turns 18 she can come live with the newlyweds. Jack knows Grace has promised she’ll take care of Millie after she’s finished her mainstream schooling (with a constant caregiver, Janice), which Grace fought hard for so Millie is never institutionalized. Up until now, it’s the reason Grace hasn’t had a serious suitor. Millie will be graduating soon. The clock is ticking.

You can’t help but admire Grace’s deep love and devotion for Millie. She grew up taking care of her. Their bond is beautiful: “I love Millie more than life itself and wouldn’t change her for the world.” It’s one of the few aspects of Grace’s story that’s beautiful.

Another could be their home which appears to be gorgeous until you get behind closed doors. Jack gave the home to Grace as a wedding present. They’d talked about her dream home, but it didn’t include being outfitted with two sets of metal gates, hidden by “high walls around it so nobody can see in.” Set in a fictional village that sounds a lot like a real village that appeals to Grace is a perfect façade. Apparently, Surrey is located in England’s wealthiest county, so Hollywood-type seclusion wouldn’t raise any red flags.

Then again, Jack has made sure there’s no one on the lookout to be suspicious. For starters, Grace’s parents will soon be moving to New Zealand. Perfect. Jack insisted Grace quit her job with the lavish Harrod’s department store. Travel requirements, he reasoned, wouldn’t be good for a fledgling marriage. She’s a fruit buyer, travels to South America. Who gives up an interesting job like that so easily? Grace, because of Millie. Perfect. Jack’s even offered to pay for Millie’s expenses until Millie comes to live with them, so why should Grace work?

Meanwhile, early on Grace allows Jack to take away her cell phone. Quickly, she loses touch with two good friends. She’s so gullible and unsuspecting because Jack is so “meticulous” in setting up that perfect lie. Losing friends, family, job, and communications would unnerve us. Not Grace, at first. She’s so focused on Millie’s welfare she loses track of her own. Maybe that seems implausible but if you’ve spent your entire life putting someone else’s needs above your own the pattern is fixed. As we put ourselves in Grace’s shoes, we see how she got herself into this nightmare, how she is Jack’s perfect wife. 

One thing you’ll love about the developmentally challenged Millie character is that she’s quite perceptive. By page 23, you sense it’s Millie who will give Grace her extraordinary “resolve.”

Can Grace extract herself from this nightmare? Before Millie becomes a victim too? How? This is what keeps us turning pages, perhaps late into the night.

Lorraine

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Miss Jane 2

Born Different and Special (Mercury, Mississippi, 1915-early 70s): BRAVE is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane. Brave girl/brave woman, bravely written, bravely published. For it’s the fictionalized story of a Mississippi farm girl born in the early 20th century with a rare, life-altering anatomical condition that’s uncomfortable to read about, inspired by the true case of the author’s great-aunt Jane. Our Jane is a “strange and beautiful child, big eyes so expressive, as if wiser or more knowing than possible.”

HEART-BREAKING is the second word that comes to mind because when your bodily and sexual functions are significantly abnormal and medical science is not advanced enough to repair those abnormalities – so different than everyone else (reportedly 1 in 20,000 are born with the condition) – engaging in normal activities and relationships is an enormous, nearly impossible mountain to climb – school, friendships, boyfriends, intimacy. So this is a SAD story about Jane’s childhood and womanhood that, for the most part, feels painfully lonely, heavy-hearted. And yet, Jane’s not mired in sadness or bitterness. Her inner strength is a gift to all of us struggling with something.

Jane’s spirit contrasts with her chronically bereft mother, her downtrodden father, and the coolness of her sister, who grew to love her because “I have to love something” – though each has their own reasons to be justifiably melancholy.

Jane’s was the home of a hard-working farm life, through the years of the Depression, in which an uncharacteristic hug from her father “sent her senses singing.” Fortunately for her, she took to farming and loved roaming the woods on the property. So, she was a “good-humored, even cheerful little child” who matured into a self-sufficient woman of remarkable acceptance of her lot in life. Miraculous, given her childhood was marked by no friends, embarrassment (diapering, soiling), and so many sacrifices. A bright child, she tried to go to school but it was untenable. Instead, she learned math helping in her father’s general store and was pleasant with the customers, mostly sharecroppers and tenants who worked the farm, which grew cotton, tobacco, corn, pecans and raised some cattle and pigs.

Watson’s prose is sensitive yet unsentimental. He’s not afraid to describe the harsh realities of Jane’s physicality – although you don’t learn of the precise medical term for Jane Chisolm’s condition until page 199. It doesn’t matter. The point is to be drawn into what Jane went through day after day, year after year, for the rest of her life. The slower pace of the novel suits the heaviness of her circumstances.

As the heavy burden of Jane’s daily living grows on us – the lengths she goes through (starving and dehydrating herself, wearing layers of slips and perfume) – we’re awed by her amazing grace. Grace is a word used often in the novel. Her sister’s name is Grace; a chapter is titled Grace in the Wilderness; and Jane “moved with a kind of natural grace, as a leaf will fall gracefully from a tree in barely a breeze.” Grace is a perfect word for the beauty, dignity, and spirituality Jane evokes for life, particularly when she loses herself in nature.

“She loved most being in the woods, with the diffused light and the quiet there. Such a stillness, with just the pecking of ground birds and forest animals, the flutter of wings, the occasional skittering of squirrels playing up and down a tree. The silent, imperceptible unfurling of spring buds into blossom. She felt comfortable there. As if nothing could be unnatural in that place, within but apart from the world.”

Two characters who touch Jane’s isolated world magnify that grace:

  • Jane’s doctor, Ed Thompson, who lives two miles from the family farm. His relationship with Jane deepens over the years, medically of course and then emotionally as he comes to care about her like his own daughter. He’s childless and for much of the novel a widower.
  • A tender, sixteen-year-old boy with blue eyes like Jane’s, Elijah Key. His self-consciousness about wearing eyeglasses almost startles us compared to what Jane endures, reminding us that how we perceive ourselves and accept our own imperfections impacts us greatly. Theirs is a brief interlude (so is her flirting with boys at a dance hall at sixteen) that offers respites of joy.

In a less eloquent way, we’re also moved by Jane’s increasingly alcoholic father who quietly feels remorseful and guilty believing it was his alcoholic transgressions that cursed his beautiful child. Jane was the last of five children, conceived late in her mother Ida’s life. By then, she’d lost two boys to illness, and her two older sons had already left home and are barely a presence. Jane’s sister also couldn’t wait to escape into town, initially working as a seamstress. For a number of years, Jane lived with her; she too could sew. Mercury, the town, is also the setting for another of the author’s novels, The Heaven of Mercury, a finalist for the National Book Award.

The heart-tugging and philosophical power of the novel asks us to dig deeply about the meaning of love. What Jane and Elijah had was pure love – not physical love but a love that transcended that. A love more extraordinary.

So another word that comes to mind when thinking about Miss Jane is UNFORGETTABLE.

Lorraine

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