Much as I am addicted to probing and poking my own psyche, I can't for the life of me figure out when I stopped reading novels, or why.
All I know is that quite a while back, I realized I was buying novels people recommended, thick, hardcover books in mint condition, then not reading them. One year I checked Amazon.com's file of all the books I had bought from them during that twelvemonth. (I'll never do that again!) Most of the novels were still unread.
Lately, though, things seem to be picking up. No explanations for that, either. But I have two real stunners to put on my personal "BEST BOOKS OF 2008."
In 2005, Ann Patchett wrote Bel Canto, and soon even the monotones among us were singing its praises. You know all those grandiose movies that put ten or twelve stars on an airplane or cruise ship or lifeboat and then create a catastrophe during which you really get to know the characters, who are no more interesting in crisis than at any other time? Well, Bel Canto isn't like that. Except that it does center on a hijacked houseparty, including an opera superstar and the Japanese billionaire who has loved her from afar, plus his translator. And a pair of guerillas. Well, forget about plot. This novel is comparable to a Puccini aria in its power to render you limp with admiration and delight.
So this year, Patchett gave us Run. Most people say the book is about families; Patchett says it's about politics. I think it's about how how things come to belong to us, and we to them, or not.
Early in the storyline, a poor Irish boy steals a small statue from a church because it looks so much like the girl he loves. A couple of generations later, two sisters (now in America) want to take the statue back from their sister's widower, because he has no daughter to be the "logical" heir. The widower, formerly mayor of Boston, has an older son who somehow doesn't belong in the family he was born to and clearly knows that, and two adopted sons who clearly do, and to whom the statue unarguably belongs.
Who belongs to whom in this life, and why? How do you make something your own? How do you get free of something another person wants desperately to give you, such as a view of the world, a passion for politics, or faith? For my part, I wanted a week's worth of evening reading from Run, but the book is much too absorbing to be confined to such discipline.
In 1980, Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping. It won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Best First Novel, and was nominated for the Pulitzer in fiction. Of course, somebody decided to make a movie of it, which was not a good idea. But happily, Christine Lahti was cast in the lead, assuring a thoughtful, beautifully rich performance of a character almost no reader could quite grasp.
Robinson did not publish another book of fiction for 24 years. In 2004, she gave us
Gilead. Of all the books I have read in my life, this was the one I most truly did not want to end. I read slower and slower, knowing the last page was coming up. The book glowed with spiritual light. Now that will give you entirely the wrong idea, but how else to say it? Spiritual, note; not religious, even though the central character is an aging pastor of the small midwestern town of Gilead. Knowing he will not live long enough to have serious conversations with his very young son, he writes the boy an extended letter, revealing his own heart and the heart of the
battered little town. Gilead won the National Book Critics Award (2004) and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2005.
Last summer, Robinson published Home . It is not a sequel to Gilead but another point of view of the same town and characters. In the first novel, the dying narrator is John Ames; in Home, the voice is that of Glory, daughter of the aging Robert Boughton, the lifelong friend and alter ego of John Ames. His ne'er-do-well son Jack and the betrayed daughter Glory (both almost middle-aged) are once again at their father's side. The resulting dynamics are not happy, but they are instructive. One British reviewer called this book, "The saddest story you'll ever love." The London Times simply declares Robinson "the world's best writer of prose."
It just occurs to me as I write that these two exceptional novels share the same themes: love and death. Well, of course. Decades ago, a tall, shy redhead sat in my creative writing class and wrote exceptional stories far beyond the level one has any right to hope for from an 18-year old. I had the luck to know her for four years, before her young life was destroyed by a drunken driver. In the last story she ever wrote, she has a character say to her dubious boyfriend, "I write about love and death because love and death is all there is." She wasn't the first writer to discover that, but surely one of the most untouched by cynicism and bitterness. Hers was a great talent, and a greater heart; and today, the day before Christmas 2008,as I unintentionally look back through the long decades to that ranch girl and the few precious writings we had from her, I am cheered to think of her. I indulge the easy belief (it costs me nothing) that, had she lived, she would have written on a level with Ann Patchett and even Marilynne Robinson.
For more about Robinson, see Marilynne Robinson, At "Home" in the Heartland:NPR
Happy Reading! Happy Holidays!