Till Human Voices Wake Us

By Patti Davis

256 pages, 2013

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

patti davis

A Place of Her Own

Sometime last year the actress Molly Ringwald published a collection of short stories called When It Happens to You.  Short stories!  A collection!  Wasn’t Molly Ringwald supposed to be permanently stuck in a John Hughes’ movie, displaced by adolescence yet opaquely beautiful with her bee-stung lips and watery eyes?  I loved Molly Ringwald and I related to her—she was the outsider, poor in Pretty in Pink and a spoiled brat in the Breakfast Club.  She made a giant gaffe on David Letterman and then became obscure a few years later, but still she seemed to represent something—some indefinable ennui that adolescents seem to feel so deeply.  So, this is a long way of saying I was disappointed when she broke out of her self-imposed seclusion and tried to write a collection of stories.  Shouldn’t only “real writers” be allowed to pursue such a torturous quest?

It’s difficult when famous people write books of a literary sort (we expect them to write blistering memoirs and cool autobiographies, of course).  When a famous sort writes a book, we crush them and make fun of them.  Rarely do we say, That was great!  I’m thinking of the pop singer Jewel who wrote a collection of poetry called A Night Without Armour and of an actor (one of the Phoenix brothers, I believe) who also tried his hand at the ancient form.  Let’s just say, these two weren’t embraced with opened arms.  So what do we do when the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan writes an erotic, lively book about a lesbian couple, whose main character is suffering from the loss of a child?

It should be noted here that Patti Davis has written critically acclaimed books in the past, but these are mostly non-fiction or semi-autobiographical works.  For this novel, she has departed from her previous style and has consequently self-published.  So, we read it with gratuitous thoughts clanging in our heads, of course…  The daughter of Reagan, a lesbian book, a taboo book, but really it’s not such a taboo subject anymore, is it?  What would Reagan think?  Nancy?  We think this until the book starts to take on a life of its own and the book gets better and there’s no longer the background noise of the book anymore, but just the book itself and the words on the page…

Till Human Voices Wake Us is the story of Isabelle Berendon whose child drowns in a swimming pool in her house.  Shaken with grief and unable to cope with her distant husband, Isabelle turns to comfort in her sister-in-law, Iris.  Soon both women are having “we’re-more-than-best-friends” thoughts.  Rather than ignore their passion, they dive into it fully, confessing their love to their husbands and shacking up in a beach house by the sea in Malibu.

If this all sounds a little too good-to-be true, perhaps it is.  The book exists in the realm of a romance, but it also portrays realistic moments of motherhood.  In fact, the details of mothering are some of the strongest in the book.  There is the mothering between Isabelle and her mother, a “failed” dancer, whose outward fragility masks a strong character.  There is the destructive mothering of Iris’s mother who won’t accept her lesbian daughter, and who has always wanted a veneer of civility at any cost.  And finally there is the mothering of Isabelle to her stepdaughter Marjorie.  The scenes between Marjorie and Isabelle are emotionally apt and at times poignant.  Marjorie darts out on to the beach and Isabelle watches from the window above; Marjorie catches a cold and Isabelle frets over her; Isabelle follows Marjorie to ballet class, etc.  These are the mundane details that make up the full scope of mothering in real life, and I was glad to see them included in the book.

In fact, at times the book seemed to be overwhelmed by the small details that make up day-to-day life (“I’ll pick up the kids from school”; “no, I’ll pick them up”), but in a way that is the beauty of the novel form, the slow unfolding of events and the way the reader can get spellbound by another family’s saga, another reality.  So, even if certain sections seem slow and unimportant, they work together to create a whole.

Which brings me to another strength of the book, namely the sense of community that is formed within the book.  Isabelle leaves the security of her husband behind, but in doing so creates a makeshift family for her daughter and herself.  Isabelle’s mother who is dying of cancer ends up living with them, as does a sophisticated hospice nurse from England.  Beside the women live two gay men who affectionately take Isabelle under their wing. 

Of course most women who leave their husbands don’t have to “suffer” in a beach house in Malibu.  Sometimes the apparent wealth and entitlement of the women just doesn’t work.  Davis tries hard to weave in the story of Isabelle’s “humble” beginnings, but sometimes these moments in the book feel false.  The working class depictions of the house and situation rely on cliché, such as the “chain-link” fences around the “postage stamp” yards.  Isabelle wears Payless shoes when she’s young; her dad’s a thief (as if drunk, working class guys naturally turn to thieving—this just didn’t seem realistic to me).  When Davis describes Isabelle and Iris they are wearing cashmere and diamond studs; they drive their fancy cars through the city.  At one point Isabelle orders a tuna sandwich from Subway (this is portrayed as an exotic event), and finds it absolutely repulsive.  These are the kinds of details that got under my skin and lured me back into thinking about Patti Davis, the author, rather than Isabelle the character—Does Patti Davis find Subway gross? I wondered.  These aren’t really questions I want to consider while reading a story that is supposed to take me away.

Luckily, if the book is at times heavy-handed, it also abounds in humor.  Isabelle has many hilarious lines in the book, many self-deprecating points that can ease me away from my “confusion” over the Subway sandwich incident.  Davis has a natural flair for the absurd (the section where she’s buying a Hillary Clinton mask is hilarious) and I hope in her next book her sometimes scathing wit will come out even more because it is delicious.

As I said before, the book meanders with a rather slow pace, but there is a bit of mystery surrounding the drowning child’s accident and there is a big payoff at the end.  In fact as the book goes on it gets stronger and more assured (which is a good thing—I’ve read many books that start off great, but fizzle out).  There is no fizzling here; rather it ends with a bang.  Davis explores themes of loss and togetherness in this book, and looks at what it means to be alone.  At one point, Isabelle muses, “I like my aloneness; I wanted to preserve it.”  It’s a beautiful line and one that draws me again to Davis, the famous daughter wanting to be alone, wanting to create her own world.  I’m glad she had the will and imagination to do so.

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