Monthly Archives: February 2012

Web of Angels

When a pregnant teenager named Heather shoots herself, the women of Seaton Grove come out in droves to make food for the girl’s family.  “They’d come with food and cards, and were dressed in dark clothing as if to make amends for their relief that the tragedy wasn’t theirs, for enjoying this unexpected night out, for being nosy, for feeling superior” (37), writes Lilian Nattel in Web of Angels, perfectly capturing the scene.

While several of the women are connected to the family – it’s a small town after all – one of them, Sharon Lewis, has a special interest.  Her teenaged son is dating Cathy, Heather’s younger sister.  Something doesn’t sit right with Sharon.  Maybe it’s that Debra, Heather’s physician mother, gave her dead daughter an emergency c-section with a kitchen knife in order to save the unborn child.  Maybe it’s that Cathy doesn’t dress properly for the temperature.  Or maybe it’s just that Sharon sees something of herself – or her selves – in Cathy.

Sharon has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which used to be known as Multiple Personality.  Nattel clearly did thorough research, and the notes at the end indicate she has friends who are “multiple.”  That deep knowledge pays off in the scenes of inside, where the Overseer and the Housekeeper preside over a complex of rooms and personalities.  The switches between the personalities are written like someone who really understands what it feels like.

DID is a somewhat controversial diagnosis, and I’m not here to take one or another side on it, because what Nattel does with the material goes beyond the medical.  Web of Angels raises important questions: what is it like for survivors of childhood trauma to raise children? What is our responsibility as adults to delve into the life of another family that just feels wrong? How are people fractured by the wounds they receive in childhood?  How do they go on, anyway?

Dan, Sharon’s husband, at first seems somewhat improbable. Dan has had to confront the truth about his wife’s disorder, but he has learned to love her in all her forms.  Dan’s acceptance of his wife’s many facets speaks to how we could all learn to accept the different aspects of those we love.  Whether anyone could really accept his wife having many distinct personalities is beside the point, as I see Dan as a foil to the way we like to throw away anyone who isn’t perfect or exactly what we want her to be.

My favorite scene in the book is when Lyssa (one of the personalities) tells Cathy the truth about her own childhood abuse.  “You don’t think she’s gross?” Cathy asks Dan after Lyssa has given details of what happened.

“’Why would I think that?’ Dan asked, insulted.

‘Because it’s disgusting.’

‘It—and the adults who liked it.  Not the kids.  Not my wife.’”

I loved this scene, because every time I speak at a high school about my own childhood abuse, I tell them this: “I am not damaged goods.  And people this happened to are not damaged goods.”

So that the book doesn’t weigh its readers down beyond hope, Nattel has provided comic relief in Dan’s parents.  Jake, who is slipping into dementia, has moments of clarity.  When he’s explaining why he never hid his Jewish identity, despite prejudice, he turns to Ingrid, a lesbian friend of Sharon’s.  “Like you, bubbeleh.  You want to be in a cupboard?” he asks, getting the phrase almost right.

I got an advance copy of Web of Angels because I loved Nattel’s The Singing Fire, so she put me on the list of reviewers.  The book comes out March 3, which means the rest of you have to wait a few weeks.


Jane Austen Book Club

This one’s going to be short, folks.  I’m about to move – again – and I don’t have time to do this book the justice it deserves.

The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler, is a crisp, smart novel about a group of women (and one man) who come together to read Jane Austen.  The book flashes back to their pasts and delves into their relationships.  Their lives parallel the Austen books they are reading, but not in a heavy-handed, kitschy kind of way.  More in a I-Really-Ought-to-Reread-Emma-So-I-Can-Get-the-Nuanced-Allusions kind of way.

So, indeed, I am rereading Emma on my phone and will move on to the rest of the Austen books I haven’t read in awhile.  Then I’ll reread Fowler’s book.  I think this one has a lot to offer and is worth that kind of investment.

The Virgin Suicides

In the second chapter of The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides writes: “The majority of dying had happened during the Second World War when we didn’t exist and our fathers were impossibly skinny young men in black-and-white photographs—dads on jungle airstrips, dads with pimples and tattoos, dads with pinups, dads who wrote love letters to the girls who would become our mothers” (35).

World War II ended in 1945.  Given the above description, let’s figure those dads were about 20 in those photographs.  Maybe a little older.  Let’s say they were 22 in 1945.  Even if they came home and took their time marrying their sweethearts and having, the narrator would have been born around 1956 or 1957.

OK, so the narrator is in high school, so let’s say 16.  That means the suicides took place in 1973.  If maybe he was 17, we could say 1974.

The list of songs on page 196 backs this up.  James Taylor recorded “You’ve Got a Friend” in 1971.  “Candle in the Wind” was 1973.  And so on.

Here’s where I get confused: the new young couple who buy the Lisbon house set up a desk with a computer on it.  Yes, there were PCs in the early-mid 1970s, but they didn’t really take off until the early 1980s.  Or am I wrong about that?  I believe it wasn’t particularly common to have a PC until around the early 1980s.

This really trips me up, because the book makes myriad references to the passage of time – when we used to have trees, when we used to have winters.  The end is especially heavy-handed with this, talking about whether the suicides were “a response to our historical moment” (247).

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but that computer on the desk sits wrong with me.  Feel free to correct my math if you are so inclined.

I’m Sorry You Feel That Way

I have been so lame about posting reviews, but I swear, I’ve been reading.

I found myself at The Strand a few months ago and did far more damage than I would have liked.  It’s an addiction, and not one I’m remotely interested in kicking.

One of the books I picked up was I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog, by Diana Joseph.  It’s as good as the title makes you expect it to be.

She begins chapters with sentences like, “My neighbor the Satanist goes up the stairs carrying groceries sacked in paper, not plastic.”  I could probably stop the review right here, because anyone in his right mind wants to read a book with sentences like that.

Joseph is dry and funny.  She writes about her family of origin, her ex-husband, her current partner, her kid, her colleagues, and her dog, not to mention the Satanist upstairs, all without making you feel like she’s taking advantage of someone else for the sake of humor.  Her humor is edgy as hell, yet I was never uncomfortable for her or for those she was writing about.  It’s the situations she ridicules, and that’s the secret.  Her life is full of absurd situations, like everyone else’s.  The difference between Joseph and everyone else?  She manages to pick out exactly what is funny about her partner’s family Lay-Z-Boy or her own anti-depressants and express it in flat, matter-of-fact prose that makes the reader snort with laughter.

It’s a quick read and an easy read, but it’s not a simple text.  She doesn’t pander.  But you probably figured that out from the title.