“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Leo Tolstoy
It’s raining again and I just ran around my house gathering up all the books I’ve read in the past few months that I have not yet written about in this column. I turned up: seven. There might be more, in a pile somewhere or tucked into a bookshelf or under a bed or couch, possibly even in a car. But already, there are all these wonderful books, and it is so hard to choose.
One stand-out is a novel I read at the beginning of the summer: “The Exhibitionist.” I had never heard of the author before, but I have discovered that she is almost as interesting as her novel, which is saying a lot.
Charlotte Mendelson is a serious and passionate gardener (I learned in an article by Hannah Beckerman; Financial Times, Aug. 5, 2020). “I garden,” the author says, “when I should be doing everything else.”
At her north London home, where she lives with her partner, the writer Joanna Briscoe, and their two children, there is a garden that is “not a garden that normal people have.” No flowers, for one. Instead, wild garlic, dragon’s tongue, chicory, chervil, mizuna (whatever that is) and many other salad leaves and herbs. Flowers? They’re a waste of growing space, she says.
“It’s all about growing stuff I can eat.” Along with countless herbs and exotic salad leaves, there are a bunch of fruit trees, as well as edible flowers and a Hunza apricot seedling she grew from a pit. Mendelson describes her gardening style as “slapdash,” because, as she explains, “It’s not actually about the knowing, it’s about getting muddy and the doing. It’s the only thing that turns off the brain of the woman who thinks too much.”
She says she would write more books if not for her gardening obsession. But in reality she has managed to write a few, between weeding, planting and pollinating with tiny children’s paintbrushes. Her fourth novel “Almost English” was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I have not read it. But I will.
I am not sure how I came upon “The Exhibitionist,” but I believe I saw a blurb in The New Yorker. The novel begins “Friday, 9 February, After Lunch.”
“‘Tolstoy is an idiot’” is the first line. And then: “This is how he always begins. Then, when somebody responds, laughing or demurring, Ray will say: ‘All that crap about happy families. It’s the unhappy families who’re alike. Uptight, cold … ugh.’ He’ll gesture merrily at the havoc: books everywhere, wizened tangerines and cold coffee, heating on full. ‘Poor bloke had never met us lot. We’re famously happy, aren’t we. Aren’t we? And totally unique. … And no, before you ask, I haven’t read whatever the book is, ‘Crime and Bloody Punishment.’”
Meet Ray Hanrahan, an artist, and egomaniac, really, who is preparing for a new exhibition of his paintings. His family — three grown children and Lucia, his selfless and long-suffering artist wife — plan to be there to support him. But then, well, stuff happens. Stuff that belies that “famously happy” designation Ray uses to describe his family at the outset of the novel. Ray is impossible, his children are complex and conflicted, and his wife is brewing secrets of her own.
This novel is beautifully written, complex and detailed, at once serious and subtly farcical. Ray is such a king baby. Regarding his wife, who is arguably a better artist than he is (but for God’s sake, don’t tell him that), “He expects her to have been faithful even before they met; to be her first, last, center.” One gets the sense, as the novel progresses, that he expects to be everyone’s center, honestly. Which is quite comical, at times, but sets up a tension that, as one reads on and becomes more familiar with and invested in the surrounding characters, grows increasingly compelling and unsettling.
I loved the descriptions of the rambling, eccentric family residence, its wizened tangerines, half-drunk coffee cups, art, antique furniture, etcetera. The characters and their complex relationships with one another are intricately and beautifully rendered. The writing is superb, the dialogue is excellent. And the plot, which unfolds in a very short timeframe, rather like Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” is surprisingly gripping. I found myself, as the novel’s end grew closer, on the edge of my seat, rooting for Ray’s wife Lucia, terrified she would not follow her dreams, but instead give it all up and give in to her narcissistic but peculiarly engaging spouse.
This is a very special book. Try it, you will love it. Stay tuned, I will let you know what I think of “Almost English.”
Another noteworthy and unusual novel I read a few months ago is “Commitment” by Mona Simpson. I actually met Mona Simpson years ago when I was interning at a literary journal she was either working or hanging out at, but that was years and years before she was the sensation she has since become. She wouldn’t remember me. I was the one reading the slush pile and emptying the trash.
“Commitment” is Simpson’s seventh novel, and she is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton, and NEA fellowship, a Guggenheim grant, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award, and the Mary McCarthy Prize. She is now the publisher of The Paris Review, and — little-known fact — is Steve Jobs’ biological sister, though they didn’t know each other until they were adults.
What happened was: their parents were unmarried when Steve was born in 1955 and they gave him up for adoption. Ten months later they married, and in 1957 had Mona, who later took her stepfather George Simpson’s name. In the 1880s, Steve Jobs tracked down his biological mother and sister and he and Mona became close. She dedicated her first novel (“Anywhere But Here”) to Steve and to their mother, Joanne.
“Commitment” is quite a long book, also about a family — a loving family — a close family, in many respects — but one torn, distorted and wounded by mental illness.
Diane Aziz wanted so badly for her children to experience the happiness and success that had eluded her in her own life, but after getting her oldest son, Walter, off to Berkeley for college, she falls into a depression that, despite her family’s hopes and efforts, only worsens with time.
The novel takes turns focusing on the perspectives of each of Diane’s children — Walter, Lina and Donnie. Each has different gifts, challenges and interests, and each takes a very different road through life, yet all are bound by a poignant, heartrending love for their mother, who ends up living, not unhappily, in a California state hospital. Thankfully, Julie, a loyal family friend, sticks around to keep things together for the lot of them as best she can.
The characters in this novel are vividly drawn and lovable, or so they become as their struggles and dreams and affections and tendencies are revealed. At the end, I felt as though I knew them all well. Touching and compelling, I recommend that you put this book on your “To Read” list, along with “Casebook,” another Simpson novel I recently read but don’t have the time or space to talk about today. (It is really good.)
Just to give you a soupcon of Simpson’s gift, one line I loved from this book is toward the end, when Lina flies from New York to California to meet her brother Walter’s and his wife Susan’s new baby — “the Dauphin,” as they call him. Here’s the line: “They lifted the baby carefully out of the buggy. The task seemed to require both of them. It was like traveling with a small molten sun.”
Okay, well, out of seven books, I spoke about two of them.
Happy reading, and enjoy these beautiful September days, even the rainy ones.