Even though I like to read the biography of a writer while I am reading his or her work, I don’t expect or want to see traces of authors’ lives in their fiction. Rather, I am interested in how writers balance work and life, whether and how they earn enough money to support their families while still writing, when they find or make time to write. I’m interested in who they met or what they experienced that contributed to their theories about literature.
At the same time, I recognise the danger of knowing too much about a writer, or any artist for that matter. Jonathan Franzen’s apparent arrogance in the Oprah flap has prevented me from reading any more of his books. Yes, even though I believe the work should stand alone. Equally, I cannot bear to watch films made by Woody Allen or Roman Polansky.
I blogged about Patchett’s Truth and Beauty a couple of years ago. It is a memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. Well, she calls it “friendship”. I call it creepy, more of a classic addict-enabler relationship than anything else. What was most disturbing about the book was its claim to being a model of friendship between women. Ick. I hope no reader took it that way.
I’d hoped that after two years my distaste would have faded enough for me to read this novel recommended by Kim. It is the story of a family of men and a stunning encounter in a snowstorm. The father, Doyle, a former mayor of Boston, has been raising his three sons since the death of his beloved wife. The boys are grown now: Sullivan, the oldest, a rebel who has—in his father’s mind anyway—thrown his life away, and the two much-younger boys, Tip and Teddy, who are just on the cusp of adulthood, Tip a senior at Harvard and Teddy an easily distracted twenty-year-old. The two were adopted at the same time, when Tip was 18 months and Teddy five days old, and just four years before the death of Doyle’s wife. Doyle and his natural son are Caucasian; Tip and Teddy are African-American.
Their encounter in the snowstorm forces each man to question his role in the family and, going forward, his role in the world. They wrestle with big issues, questions of responsibility and sacrifice. It is an interesting story, and Patchett is a terrific writer. Her prose is compelling, keeping me reading late into the night. Not only does she manage to orchestrate just the right balance of description, dialogue and action, but her characters have interesting quirks, such as Tip’s interest in ichthyology and Teddy’s habit of quoting political speeches. Although I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters, I was curious to see what would happen to them and what they would choose to do.
Still, I couldn’t quite shake my uneasy distaste. I thought perhaps it was because Patchett, who attended Sarah Lawrence and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, tries to capture the contrast between the very privileged lives of this family and that of the woman and her 11-year-old daughter whom they meet the night of the snowstorm. Patchett describes the life of privilege beautifully, summoning up details of careless beauty, but when it comes to the women’s lives—housing projects, menial jobs, public schools—she is less successful. Similarly, she seems unable to put herself on the other side of the racial divide. She alludes to issues of race and class and economics, but ultimately trivialises them in favor of the rather common rebellions and negotiations between parent and adult children. There’s also the role of religion, Catholicism in particular, which is also touched on but never explored.
I thought perhaps she was trying to do too much in one small novel, and trying to describe worlds she didn’t really know enough about. But then there was a scene where Sullivan comforts the girl by picking her up, and the crying girl wraps her legs and arms around him, just as Patchett so often described Lucy doing, and the ick factor simply overwhelmed the story for me. The scene would not have bothered me if I hadn’t read the earlier book, so perhaps all of my reactions are tainted and should be read with that possibility in mind.