Still Summer

I’ve talked about domestic drama before. I think of it as the genre that-dare-not-speak-its-name, because it flies under the radar of the litcriterati. A genre written mostly by women and read mostly by women — one that doesn’t get trivialized or bashed (for the most part) — that’s something to nurture. The bigger names (Jodi Picoult and ELinor Lipman, for example) get serious reviews in the big name places. And that’s good. In fact, that is excellent.

[asa book]0446578762[/asa] Jackie Mitchard is one of my favorites in this select group of women who produce well written, intriguing stories about women who live what might seem to be traditional or even boring lives. Many of the subjects are no surprise: divorce, sick children, unexpected violence, family dysfunction. But as is ever the case with a story — it’s not where you end up, but how you got there.

Mitchard’s most recent novel is Still Summer. This is a novel that took me by surprise — and excuse me for sounding know-it-all, but that is hard to do. Still Summer breaks out of the genre in an unexpected and interesting way.

Instead of a small town or a suburban neighborhood or a farm, we have four women on a sailboat. Three of them are old friends who charmed and rabble roused their way through high school together twenty-five years earlier. Tracy, Holly and Olivia as well as Camille — Tracy’s 19-year-old daughter –set out on a great adventure.

There’s enough material right there for a novel, albeit a quiet one. The backstory is chock full of conflicts, enough to power the four women all the way to the Caribbean and back again. But Mitchard doesn’t stop there. The four women set out on what was meant to be a lighthearted adventure, but it turns into a struggle to survive the elements, the sea, predators (some of them human), and twenty-five years of personal history.

Still Summer is a rocking good story, one that pulls you along. I picked it up thinking I’d just read the first few pages and didn’t put it down again until I finished. What Mitchard managed to do here is to take the best of the domestic drama genre and an adventure story and interweave them so that they support each other beautifully.

It is in fact Still Summer, so I suggest you get a hold of this book. Except maybe not on a sailboat. Another one of Mitchard’s novels that I like a lot: The Most Wanted.

My latest Grievance – Elinor Lipman

[asa left]0618644652[/asa] The narrator of this first person novel is Frederica Hatch, a teenager and the only child of two ultra liberal professors whose primary purpose in life is bringing her up to be a strong, well adjusted, analytical and happy person. Frederica makes fun of her parents but it’s clear at all times how much she loves and admires them.

The setting for this novel is a small fictional all women college outside Boston, one with no pretensions to academic excellence — not so long ago it was two-year college dedicated to producing secretaries who ‘married up’. Things have changed, and Fredericka’s parents are a big part of that.

The launch of the real story is Fredericka’s discovery that her father had a first wife. Her curiosity gets the upper hand and she sets a series of events in motion that bring the dramatic and narcissistic Laura Lee French to campus as a dorm housemother.

Aside from matters of personal history and potential embarrassment, it could have all worked out well except Fredericka never reckoned with Laura Lee’s need to put herself in the middle of high stakes drama, and her willingness to create those dramas in the most destructive ways possible. Laura Lee immediately launches herself into a very obvious affair with the married president of the university, with results that are only partially predictable. The Hatches get mired in the middle of all that, and their family ties and child rearing philosophies are put to the test.

This novel is in some ways very typical of Lipman’s other work. Laura Lee is a lot like the birth mother in ‘And then She Found Me’ — flamboyant, self centered, disdainful of laws and rules when they get in her way. On the other hand, while many of Lipman’s novels end just when the going gets interesting (‘The Pursuit of Alice Thrift’), this one carries through, so that we find out what happens to everybody for years down the line.

I like that kind of thing, so that made me happy. What I’m still not sure about is the first person narrator. I liked Fredericka, but it’s hard to tell a story like this from a teenager’s limited perspective. I would guess that Lipman liked the challenge of that, and for the most part she pulled it off. And it is interesting to see the union-oriented, this-family-is-a-democracy Hatches deal with a precocious teenager.

I liked this novel a great deal more than some of her work, but not as much as The Inn at Lake Devine.

a bit of perspective from the Washington Post

[asa book]0618644652[/asa] This is from the review of Elinor Lipman’s new novel:

From The Washington Post’s Book World/washingtonpost.com

Elinor Lipman is a far more serious novelist than she pretends to be or is allowed to be by reviewers. (I learned a long time ago that to be taken seriously you need to cut back on the funny lines. I once all but won the Booker Prize for a novel from which, on Kingsley Amis’s advice, I had removed anything remotely mirthful. Alas, it was still “all but,” so I reverted to my old ways.) Lipman, declining to learn this worldly wisdom, goes on making jokes and therefore tends to get described with adjectives that are good for sales but bad for literary reputations: “oddball,” “hilarious,” “over-the-top,” “quirky,” “beguiling” or, worst of all, “summer reading.” The prose slips down too easily and pleasantly to allow her to rise into the literary top division, where the adjectives become “piercing,” “important,” “profound,” “significant,” “lyrical,” “innovative” and so on. Dull, in fact.

But up there at the top is where this enchanting, infinitely witty yet serious, exceptionally intelligent, wholly original and Austen-like stylist belongs. Delicately, she travels the line where reality and fiction meet. Reality being more oddball, quirky and chaotic than fiction can ever be, Lipman inures us to the truth about the way we live by making it up as she goes along, cracking jokes and pretending it’s all fiction.

I find a lot of sad truths about the literary establishment here. Or not?