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by Antonya Nelson

Bloomsbury | 2010 | 229 pages | $25.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

antonya nelson

“You’re one of the few women reviewers we have who’ll review books by men.”  My editor told me something to this effect and I felt a sort of smug satisfaction.  Basically, I was just excited to relay this information to my husband, who claimed I only read books by women.

Actually some of my favorite authors are men—I count Richard Ford and Jay McInerney, whom I discovered in college with his “groundbreaking” (at least I thought so) Bright Lights, Big City, among my favorite writers.  I also enjoy Sherman Alexie, T.C. Boyle, and Andre Dubus (as well as his son, Andre Dubus III, who has written short stories and the excellent House of Sand and Fog, but it’s true that I went through a period (OK, a decade) when I focused almost exclusively on women writers.

Perhaps in my late teens and twenties, I wanted to know what men thought and felt—what moved them, what filled them with the desire I was just beginning to feel—so I turned to male novelists.  That yearning actually led me to Montana (after reading the Richard Ford story “Great Falls,” I felt there was no way I could not live in Montana).  Needless to say, reading books by men did not solve the mystery of men.  In spite of wisdom gained from short stories and novels, men remained a mystery.  (And still remain a mystery.)  I met some cowboys, dated some good old boys, and moved on to female authors.

Reading female authors was a totally different experience.  When I read the likes of Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, and Sue Miller, rather than feeling like a spy delving into alien territory, I felt a heart-beating recognition.  Sometimes when I read an Alice Munro line I would feel the hair raising on my neck because what she was saying was so remarkably, precisely accurate.  Somehow she and the other female writers I read managed to write what I felt about love and longing.

They described things that I had only felt, not articulated.  Having it said in a story was almost terrifying.  My mind is ablaze even as I write this—I think of an early short story by Lorrie Moore.  The narrator is writing about becoming an author and how the work consumes her.  It seems simple enough, but the emotion behind the scene is extraordinary.  Or an Alice Munro story where she writes about the love, shame, and dependence that surround mothers and daughters.  How women keep the core of themselves intact while playing various roles seems to be the fundamental question these authors ask.

One of the authors I found during this period was Antonya Nelson.  She was one of those authors whom I “found” and devoured, reading her books over the course of a couple of weeks.  But Nelson was different than the other women writers I’d come across.  Something was different in her characters—they were freer, less trapped, and unburdened by feelings of guilt.  Nelson allows her characters to be naughty—they are lazy and irreverent, they smoke pot before teaching class and sleep around without “paying for it.”

Most of the female authors I’d read before placed their characters in stark moral dilemmas—for example, in an Alice Munro story, the narrator who is having an affair ends up giving up her children to her ex-husband in order to be with her boyfriend.  This choice is excruciating.  Similarly in the much-loved novel The Good Mother, by Sue Miller, a passionate love affair supersedes a mother’s duty to her child (it is more complex than that, but this is the essence).  And certainly in novels and stories throughout time women are caught, snagged, and entrapped for their transgressions and for following their desires--The Scarlet Letter, Tess, and Anna Karenina, to name a few.

But, lucky for them, Nelson’s women (and men) get away with their transgressions and somewhat hazy notions of “morality.”  This might be celebrated by feminists, and indeed, when I first read of women behaving more like men, I was thrilled.  But at the same time, the lack of consequences does not always work in fiction.  (In our fiction we might crave tragedy).

Bound, Nelson’s latest book, is no exception.  The book examines the lives of a couple, Catherine and Oliver Desplaines, at the point of which it intersects with the life of Catty, Catherine’s unknown Godchild.  (Catty is named after Catherine).  The Godchild is the child of Catherine’s best friend in high school, a wild girl named Misty, who included the more sheltered Catherine in her sometimes illegal, and often risky, pursuits.  Nelson spends a great deal of time on these high school recollections, richly describing party nights and haphazard plans.

Misty is a poor girl and a tough teenager, whose home life is not the best; Catherine is the underachiever of college professors.  Somehow the chemistry between them works.  However, by the time the book starts, Misty is long forgotten.  I find this a little unbelievable—that the girl who occupied Catherine’s life for so long could be reduced to a sketchy portrait, but then again, we probably do coax away the parts of our lives where we acted in strange, uncharacteristic ways (like Catherine acted when she was with Misty—sleeping around, stealing food from the places they worked together, etc.).

When Misty dies a tragic death, Catherine goes on a search to find her daughter.  In the meantime, she reexamines her teenage years.  The rebelliosnessness of her youth has flip-flopped, for now Catherine is the much-pampered wife of a highly successful, much older man, the entrepreneur, Oliver.

Oliver, who has been married two times before being married to Catherine, is in the midst of an affair with one of his employees, simply called “Sweetheart” in the book.  Although Oliver’s children remain furious with him for leaving their mothers (he has children from both of his previous marriages), he cannot stop himself from womanizing.  The repercussions for Oliver’s affair is nil.  There may be “internal questions” driving at Oliver, but really he gets through the affair scot-free—Catherine never finds out about it and the relationship to Sweetheart dies a slow death.

Perhaps the most fully realized character in the book is Catty, the girl who just lost her mother.  What could come off as clichéd—the bitter teenage outsider who is smart, friendless, and ironic—comes across as believable.  We yearn for this girl, just as she yearns for something elusive.  The bitterness of her phone message conflicts with her almost-buried compassion (for the war veteran who lives upstairs, for the animals that almost get killed).  Catty is sullen, not very pretty and astute; she refuses to give in to the theatrics that are expected of her when her mother dies, but rather turns toward the one boy at the private school she’s attending who accepts her, a boy with a permanent smile on his face.

He gleefully leads her to his own strange home life, where she hides from her counselors and teachers, avoiding what will become of her life.  It is not until she runs her car out on a desolate road that she is forced to let the adults who have failed her, help. 

Nelson writes with a remarkably keen eye about adolescence.  Every detail seems culled from an organic place.  When she describes Catty’s room—the creepy Goth look of the ceiling, the odd assortment of classic novels and jumbled clothes—it seems right on.  Likewise, the brutal lens through which teenagers view adults is pitch-perfect.  That lens is merciless and shows adults who are as quixotic as children.  I can think of no other author who writes about teenagers with such a deft, skilled hand and eye.

Of course there are young adult novelists, but this book is not intended for teens; it’s intended for adults, who will certainly consider their own lost loves—for many women, I assume the “lost love” will be another teenage girl, a soul mate.  Misty—the orphaned girl’s mother—becomes a hugely successful real estate agent when she grows up.  The shock of this—the way she picked herself up from her miserable childhood and ended up in a pre-fab house with all its accessories, seems perfect.  For as much as we assume we know what someone will become, we really don’t.  For Nelson’s characters, life is full of trouble, paradoxes, and surprise, but they are rarely faced with a stark moral dilemma—the dilemmas for these women are more subtle, more unusual, and more random.

Nelson is teaching us something in her own way.  If we are careful observers, if we wait and follow our own meandering paths, our moment will come.

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