Books: a fictional interlude in our non-fictional life by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein is a short, dense and intense meditation on what it means to be an outsider and a survivor. The first-person narrator speaks directly to the reader spinning the tale of how, as a child, her family had taught her to subdue her own wants and silence her own voice to be “good.” Throughout her life, she has been repressed, nowhere more so than with her own outwardly successful and entrepreneurial brother. When his marriage fails, he beckons her home to care for him and his manor house.  She meets his every domestic and physical need, cooking, cleaning, gardening, shopping and, when his health fails, bathing him, tending to all his more intimate needs for care. But there’s more.

As she meditates on her struggles relating to others and to the outside community, we share the discomfort that an outsider experiences. She is Jewish, a survivor of anti-Semitic persecution, and has resettled in a town in the northern part of some unnamed, English-speaking country. She speaks four languages, but not one of them English, further estranging her from the townspeople. The reader may wonder if she is also autistic. It’s unclear. She certainly lacks interpersonal skills or the ability to understand how others perceive her. Some of her behaviors, done with the best of intentions, are taken for a kind of witchcraft, provoking fear and hatred.

The whole telling of it echoes Edgar Allen Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales of superstitious small towns in New England. The novel has the feel of a parable, minus the moral a parable is expected to yield. But the isolation of “the other” also recalls the dystopia of Kafka. This book will definitely prompt vigorous discussion in book clubs and is open to many interpretations, none of them uncomplicated.

The Bird Hotel by Joyce Maynard is a richly written, spellbinding narrative that continues to surprise to the very last sentence. Irene is a young woman, artistically talented, whose life has moved from childhood traumas to adult tragedies. After the calamitous deaths of her husband and son, she flees the United States to a small Central American village, where she builds a new life running a hotel bequeathed to her, finding tranquility and friendship amid beautiful gardens beside a large lake at the foot of a volcano.

The environment Maynard creates in such a vivid painterly style is clearly enhanced by her having lived for some 24 years by Lake Atitlan among the indigenous Mayan people of Guatemala. As did The Bird Hotel’s protagonist, Irene, Maynard purchased a guest house in Guatemala, cultivating its gardens, and expanding it while creating jobs for local workers struggling to support their families. The flora and fauna, the Mayan culture, even the fisherman, all populate this novel.

When life’s beautiful moments are upended by betrayals and calamities, Irene discovers inner strengths and learns resiliency. There are moments of magical realism that recall Gabriel García Márquez or some of Isabel Allende, but not so many as to spoil the book for me. Richly drawn characters and plot twists and turns all add to the reader’s enjoyment of this fine novel.

Count the Ways is an earlier book by Maynard. It is a family saga told by Eleanor, a woman whose life and personality are shaped by her difficult childhood. An only child of two parents, totally absorbed in one another, she was never wanted and shipped off to boarding school where she never fits in, not even with her roommate. When Eleanor’s parents both die in a car crash, the roommate’s parents take her in until graduation. She is aimless till she meets Cam, tall, handsome, easy-going, a maker of wooden bowls.

I won’t go further because the strength of this book is in Maynard’s storytelling.  Much of Eleanor’s adult life is focused on their children and giving them the love, family and home she never had. Alas, even the most committed, intensely focused mother cannot control their lives.  This book is about love, betrayals, tragedies, resilience, mysogny, rage and, ultimately forgiveness. Themes of finding oneself, professionally and personally, abound.

Some readers may remember Maynard for her ten-month December-May affair in 1972 with J.D. Salinger. He was 53 years old, and she, 18, just one of a series of Salinger relationships with young women whom he reportedly “groomed” to become his lovers. She wrote of him in her then-scandalous memoir At Home in the World, and many elements of her own family background show up in the character of Eleanor.

Count the Ways is more linear and traditional than The Bird Hotel. It lacks the touches of magical realism. The settings in New Hampshire and Boston are detailed, but they are less lushly painted than the small village in which Irene settled in Central America in The Bird Hotel, written X years later. Still, Count the Ways is a good read about a relatable woman and the twists and turns of her life, some good, some horrific, a life ultimately well lived, which the reader can share and from which the reader can learn.

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