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Novel Comments

11 Feb

I finally read James McBride’s The Color of Water(1996/2006). The author is the eighth of twelve children of a born and raised white Jewish Mother and a Christian black father. His parents, married in the early 1940’s, were in a precarious position. James’s mother became “dead” to her parents and extended family and lived in New York City’s all black neighborhoods with her husband. She converted to Christianity, and, in fact, she and her husband founded a church.

All twelve children were raised on two fundamental values: God and education. Their mother told them that God is the color of water. All twelve became accomplished adults. James McBride is an award winning journalist, author, musician, and composer. His mother got her degree in social work at age 65 and remained a dynamic contributor to her community for many years afterwards.

By juxtaposing stories about his mother and his own life, James McBride illuminated his and his mother’s struggles with identity amidst the contradictions of culture, class, race, and religion. The novel has been already daubed a “classic.” I found it to be a page turner. If you haven’t already read it, it is well worth the time.

Novel Comments

4 Jan

This fourth of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child (2015), continues and ends the tale of the long friendship between the brilliant Elena and the volatile Lila, against the background of the sociological influences of city of their births, Naples. The intense ambivalence of a close female relationship has perhaps never been more thoroughly explored in literature. Ferrante shies away from no aspect of these two women’s long-standing attachment. She includes their cooperation and competition, their dependence on each other for self-definition and struggles to be independent of the other, their intimate familiarity and their blindness to aspects of themselves and each other. Ferrante is a writer worthy of her fame. However, sometimes it would have been a relief if she had conveyed less intensity and more humor.

Novel Comments

15 Oct

This entry is not really about a novel but instead about a movie. Just saw Victoria and Abdul. To misquote- How lonely is the head that wears the crown. The movie’s script and actors did an excellent job of portraying the interesting contrast of being in a position of power yet at the same time being a captive of the traditional role of monarch and also being a tool whom everyone around, except perhaps Abdul, tries to use to gain personal advantage.

Novel Comments

22 Sep

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third of Elena Ferrante’s (2013) four Neopolitan Novels. This novel further develops the central theme, the friendship between Lila and Elena. Elena, the main character, is both a writer and the teller of these tales. Elena leaves the neighborhood and the city, Naples, in which they grew up together as best friends. In her middle twenties, Elena becomes a renown novelist, lives in Pisa and Milan, and then spends her married life in Florence. Lila stays in or near the same working class neighborhood, where she leaves her abusive husband and then lives with a decent man and her son while she becomes a computer expert.

Elena and Lila are brilliant, creative, and unstable women with vague senses of who they are. They use each other to try to figure themselves out. Their relationship is at the very least always in the background of their lives. When their relationship moves into the foreground, usually for brief periods, it is intensely filled with deep attachment and ambivalence. They depend on each other but try not to. They love, hate, sometimes collaborate, and usually compete and criticize. Their lives interweave as each woman tries to define herself against the similarities and differences with the other.

Another major theme of this friendship is how to each of the two women relates to the men in their lives. In this novel, Elena tries a traditional feminine role as wife and mother, subservient to a man who does not truly see her. The man for whom she had competed with Lila in their youth comes back and, this time, chooses her. Leaving her husband and children, she chooses him. Lila chides her as a fool. I assume book four will explore this choice and its consequences.

Novel Comments

20 Aug

Elena Ferrante’s second novel in her Neapolitan quartet, The Story of a New Name(2012), recounts a rather distant but still connected relationship between two best girlfriends as they pass from their late teens into their mid twenties. The distance comes primarily from the complications that arise as they become intensely involved with men and their competition for one in particular. However there is also their choice of difference paths- One goes into a tumultuous and destructive marriage, and the other, the voice of the writer, struggles to establish one of education and creativity in spite of their working class backgrounds. The writer, Elena, uses men to further her more urbane, intellectual ambitions; the other, Lila, uses men to express her emotional instability. I am ready to read the third novel.

Novel Comments

4 Jun

I have finished the first novel, My Brilliant Friend (2012), of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels. It depicts the friendship between two extraordinarily talented, intelligent girls from ages 6 to 16 as they grow up in a working class Italian neighborhood. In Ferrante’s sharp, insightful prose the depth and intensity of their relationship is revealed in its full complexity as they repeatedly join together and pull apart in their imitations, envies, and love of each other. Whether they collaborate or compete, no matter what is going on, each is always aware of the other.

Novel Comments

30 Apr

The Days of Abandonment by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante (2002) is a tour de force. It is not a read for the fainthearted in its first-person depiction of the despair of a woman whose husband unexpectedly leaves her for another, much younger woman. The novel begins: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” After assuming blame, he promptly left.

His abandonment is quickly followed by the fragmentation of her sense of self, her relationships with others, including her children, and even objects as they become less solid and less manipulable by her. Ferrante’s detailed description of the woman’s fragmentation is so visceral and painful that I found it difficult to read. Sometimes I was tempted to abandon the book; however, each time I was drawn back into its intensity, into, in the author’s words, the “excessive reaction that pierced the surface of things.”

In the end, after falling into “the holes in the net of events,” the character regains some sense of herself, and the fragmentation lessens, but, to use a Ferrante metaphor of the net. she is not able to reestablish a tight, close weave in the net that supports her.