In this slender novel, Christine Schutt has written a poem to loss and loneliness, to the anguish of losing parents, to the threat of heredity ("you're just like your mother") to the ephemeral joy of connecting, in some small way, even in fantasies; and to the saving grace of words.
The novel is told, in short, fragmented chapters, by Alice Fivey, who opens the novel remembering a happier time, when her father was still alive and her mother was living at home:"One winter afternoon—an entire winter—it was my father who was taking us. Father and Mother and I, we were going to Florida—who knew for how long? I listened in at the breakfast table whenever I heard talk of sunshine. I asked questions about our living there that made them smile. We all smiled a lot at the breakfast table. We ate sectioned fruit capped with bleedy maraschinos—my favorite! The squeezed juice of the grapefruit was grainy with sugar and pulpy, sweet, pink. 'Could I have more?' I asked, and my father said sure. In Florida, he said it was good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors. In the Florida we were headed for the afternoon was swizzled drinks and cherries to eat, stem and all: 'Here’s to you, here’s to me, here’s to our new home!' One winter afternoon in our favorite restaurant, there was Florida in our future while I was licking at the foam on the fluted glass, biting the rind and licking sugar, waiting for what was promised: the maraschino cherry, ever-sweet every time."
Alice's father dies in an accident soon after this memory, drowning after he drove his car into a lake. Alice is only five when he dies. For two years afterwards, her mother (also named Alice) and Alice cling to the promise of a Florida where life is easy and the sun is warm, in the face of frigidly cold winters, a succession of brutal boyfriends (all of whom Alice and her mother call Walter), and an extended family that looks down on Alice Sr.'s erratic behavior. Alice's mother is loud, while her brother and mother are quiet. She is profligate in her generosity to others, while her brother and mother carefully hoard their wealth. She makes public scenes, while her brother and mother are careful to avoid unpleasant topics and keep their voices down. When Alice is seven, the family chauffeur and handyman, Arthur, drives her to The San, where she remains throughout her daughter's childhood.
Schutt is masterful in using a few words and phrases to evoke Alice's life without her mother. Living first with her wealthy Uncle Billy and Aunt Frances, and briefly in a huge mansion with her bedridden grandmother, Alice is haunted by the specter of her mother. She and her relatives continually compare her to her mother -- both are loud, "all mouth."
Soon after her mother is admitted to The San, the following scene takes place: "As soon as Uncle Billy was gone, Aunt Frances caught me at the cupboards, finding my thumb in Mother’s thumb-cut crystal glasses. 'Snooping!' she said. 'Your mother liked to snoop, too. Did you know that? Next time, ask.'”
Aunt Frances and Uncle Billy constantly criticize Alice's mother for being a spendthrift, suggesting that Alice may follow in her footsteps: "Aunt Frances spoke of money, of Uncle Billy’s, Nonna’s, and her own, but not my mother’s; what was left of my mother’s was knotted in trusts and Nonna was paying for me—didn’t I know that? Aunt Frances said, and said often, 'Didn’t your mother teach you?' Simple economies and healthful ways. There were rules, manners. Made beds and sailing spoons. 'Napkins first and last,' she said, 'and the napkin ring is yours,' and so it was, handwrought and hammered, a gothic napkin ring with my mother’s name, which was also mine, Alice."Alice, Alice, Alice, Alice!"
Throughout the novel, Schutt eloquently -- and painfully -- depicts Alice's conflict between fearing she is like her mother, and hoping she is like her mother.
Schutt's writing is breathtakingly eerie, sad, beautiful, strange. With not a wasted word, she paints indelible images. The San is described as having: "Wavy grounds, old trees, floating nurses."
She depicts Alice's mother just before she was driven to The San: "Mother was wearing the falling-leaves coat in the falling-leaf colors, a thing blown it was she seemed, past its season, a brittle skittering across the icy snow to where Arthur stood by the car, fogged in."
Schutt lends the same deft touch to her descriptions of weather, houses, landscapes: "The air then was coppery with music...."
Schutt's prose elevates this novel above its relatively simple plot.
As the book progresses, we trace Alice's life after she is living on her own in New York. As she struggles with the Walters in her own life, flies across the country to visit her mother, and seeks to become a poet, as she believes her father wanted to be, Alice must come to terms with her inheritances as well as with her individuality. There are no easy solutions to Alice's dilemmas, because they are part of life. Schutt's ability to convey the mess and uncertainty of an adult life, the tenuous ties to the past and the hesitant hopes for future, and to turn that life into poetry, is richly rewarding. This novel is highly recommended.
Many thanks to Open Road and to Netgalley for sending me this ARC.