Nov 27, 2013

Three Passionate Novels: The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp, My Education, All Our Pretty Songs

It’s possible that the main thing Susan Choi’s My Education, All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry and Eva Rice’s The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp have in common is the fact that they’re all among my favourite reads of the year. But writing about them together also makes sense to me because even though they’re very different in terms of plot, I loved them for similar reasons. They take us from 1960s Cornwall and London to the Pacific Northwest to a small East Coast university campus in the early 1990s, and along the way they deal with desire and sexual agency and navigating complex relationships, all from the point of view of young women. Last but not least, they’re all gorgeously written.

The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice

The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp is a companion novel to Eva Rice’s equally wonderful The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets; this means that although the two have a few characters in common, they can be read as stand-alones. The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp opens in the mid 1950s: Tara Jupp, a vicar’s daughter, has always loved music, but it’s not until a famous music producer hears her singing at a friend’s wedding when she’s seventeen that the words “you really should do something with that voice” become more than an empty saying.

Tara’s transition to bohemian 1960s London and transformation into singing sensation Cherry Merrywell happen fairly late in the novel, though. The first part of The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp is primarily concerned with two things, the first of which is the complex tapestry of relationship between Tara, her older sister Lucy, and their friend Matilda. I loved that this was the kind of story where romantic love is framed as one among many important relationships: Tara, Lucy and Matida’s friendships are just as central to the story as their love affairs. Additionally, I love how Rice portrays beautiful and sexually confident girls as complicated human beings whose subjectivity matters. Tara tells the reader about her sister’s beauty and her romantic adventures with no hint of slut shaming and with nothing but affection and respect.

The second thing is Tara’s crush on Inigo Wallace, a guitar-playing boy wonder readers of Rice’s previous novel will already be familiar with. Early on in the story, Inigo can be described as Tara’s Manic Pixie Dream Boy (a loaded term, I know, but as I hope to explain I’m not using it pejoratively). Here’s what Tara says about the tension between fantasy and reality when Inigo re-enters her life:
Since I was ten years old, Inigo Wallace had been my imaginary plaything — a vision of guitar playing loveliness, something to fill my head when I lay awake at night — but none of that was real.
How could I have been anything other than shattered by meeting him again all those years later? I wanted a fantasy — someone who could make everything all right just by looking at me — but I had encountered someone quite different. Damaged? Yes, he was, I thought, shoving the cigarette back into my pocket — but so much more the precious for it.
Some of you may have heard me say before that I’m drawn to the very human elements of stories about idealisation and its pitfalls (Paper Towns is not my favourite John Green novel for nothing). My main beef with these stories is that very rarely do girls get to be their subjects rather than their objects — and so a process that’s part of growing up, and of coming to realise that intimacy of any sort involves dealing with another real human being in all their messy glory, becomes troublingly gendered. Yet for the second time in a row, Eva Rice has given us a novel where a girl does get to be the subject of that process. That alone would be enough to make me love her.

There’s more, though: when Tara moves to London she becomes sexually involved with Digby, a famous photographer, and although he doesn’t turn out to be her One True Love the time they spend together (which gives her the chance to explore her desire and get to know her own body as well as her lover’s) doesn’t Damage Her Forever. I have no words for how happy this novel’s approach to female sexuality makes me — and really, the same is true of all the novels I’m sharing with you today. These are stories that acknowledge that girls are not undone by relationships that don’t last forever — they can look back on these experiences and see that they mattered and move on with their lives, in a way that we’re made to believe is the prerogative of men by most narratives.

I loved The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp because it’s about friendship and sex and music and girls grabbing hold of life, but most importantly of all because it’s about a young woman reclaiming her creativity and her right to authorship. Tara eventually realises that she doesn’t want to be Cherry Merrywell — singing is really important to her, but she wants to approach it in her own terms, which don’t necessarily involve being a pretty and innocent mouthpiece for the hit songs men (including the man she’s in love with) write for her. Tara is a songwriter, and it’s time the world acknowledges that a woman gets to be that too if she wants to. In sum, all the love for this novel. Here’s an awesome bit about a legendary early Rolling Stones gig in London Tara goes to:
There was nothing sweet about that night — nothing you’d associate with the Swinging Sixties of books and movies, no neat skirt and beehive hairdos and twisting nicely with the boy you had a crush on in the class above you at school. It was sheer chaos; it was everything on the brink. I felt the heat and the urgency of the boys on that stage and I realised that more than anything else, all of this was about sex. Sex and magic, and something new and urgent that made it impossible to imagine being anywhere more important that night than in the Marquee Club listening to that group play. The drummer was pounding his sticks like a primitive being, the piano player was hitting those keys so hard I wonder how they didn’t fly off altogether. It was wild. That was the only word for it. Wild.
My Education by Susan Choi

Before I say anything else about Susan Choi’s excellent My Education, I have to comment on the way this novel has been marketed. Cass has often commented on how novels with lgbtq content are marketed in really coy ways that give prospective readers only veiled indications of what can be found inside them, and I think My Education is a perfect example of this. I had no idea this was a love story between two bisexual women (a student and a professor) until I started reading it. If you look at the UK cover closely you can tell it portrays two women, but that’s not immediately apparent, and there’s nothing on the back cover blurb that indicates it. Obviously the very last thing I mean is that lgbtq novels should come with some sort of content warning; what I do mean is that it’s not unreasonable to ask that their plots be described directly and objectively. I resent the assumption that readers need to be tricked into picking them up, which is akin to the reasoning that cover whitewashing is progressive, really, because it tricks otherwise reluctant readers into reading about people of colour. This is not what equality looks like is what I’m saying.

In the case of My Education, the novel initially makes use of a red herring by suggesting to readers that the protagonist, post-graduate student Regina Gottlieb, is about to get involved with Professor Nicholas Brodeur and not with his wife Martha. Choi plays with her readers’ (and also her narrator’s) heteronormative assumptions in ways that I thought were interesting, and I suppose this leaves room for the argument that revealing that the love affair at the heart of My Education is between two women qualifies as a spoiler. But this is not an argument I’m willing to buy, for two reasons: one, because our cultural context is what it is, and this adds to a troubling pattern of veiled marketing. Two, because the discovery that a character is in fact heterosexual would never be conceived of as a plot twist, and so it’s about time we also stop treating bisexuality as a shocking reveal.

As I told you last summer, I loved My Education. The first thing that grabbed me was the writing: the best way I can describe it is as the rebel child of The Secret History and Fingersmith. I was reminded of the former not only because this is a campus novel, but because Choi evokes a sense of ominous inevitability almost as effectively as Tart (though she uses it in very different ways — don’t worry, there are no gory murders of queer women in this story); the latter came to mind because of the way Choi evokes passion and sexual chemistry between Regina and her lover Martha.

Much like Rice’s novel, My Education is concerned with expressions of desire by women. And in a different, darker way, it also deals with idealisation, particularly with the potentially dehumanising power of erotic obsession. The novel is divided into two sections: one is set in the early 1990s and follows Regina and Martha’s love affair as it unfolds; the other takes place fifteen years later and shows us an older Regina looking back on the great love affair of her youth. What makes the second section so interesting is the fact that the older Regina is suddenly able to see everything she took for granted about Martha; all the aspects of her life she brushed aside because the force of her longing distracted her from the real person before her eyes.

I was drawn to the multiple strands of romance that make up My Education; and also, once again, to the framing of a love story that is in the past as precious in a way that doesn’t invalidate ties with other people. Also, I have a lot of thoughts about the ending, which will naturally be full of spoilers. So proceed with caution from this point onwards.

There’s a lot that could be said about the fact that both Martha and Regina end up with men, and I, a straight lady, am probably not the ideal person to say anything at all. For what it’s worth, though, here are my thoughts: I liked the ending because it acknowledges sexual fluidity but at the same time Regina and Martha’s bisexuality is not erased. The scene where they reunite and make love was particularly important, because it makes it clear that their love affair is not to be framed as a “phase” of youthful experimentation — an argument people often use to erase bisexual identities. Regina and Martha love each other and they also love men, and this is absolutely okay. When people call for more love stories where women stay together I absolutely support their arguments, but I’d feel conflicted about calling for one of those ending here because we don’t get this particular story all that often either: a story where a bisexual woman’s long-term relationship with a man isn’t framed as “proof” that she’s “gone straight”, or was just playing at being queer, or any other such nonsense. The only conclusion I have is that we need more of all the stories (as usual). Also, please read My Education and tell me what you think.

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

Lastly, we have Sarah McCarry’s gorgeous All Our Pretty Songs, which deals with many of the above themes in how-is-this-even-possible stunning prose. I’ve been reading McCarry’s writing online for many years now, so I wasn’t particularly surprised that this novel was so well-written. But the assuredness of her storytelling voice surpassed my expectations: you would never guess this is a debut novel. Before I go any further, let me just tell any fans of Francesca Lia Block and Elizabeth Hand who might be reading that they absolutely need this novel in their lives.

All Our Pretty Songs is loosely based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, except (as you would expect from a kickass feminist writer like McCarry) that the story is told from the point of view of a girl. This isn’t necessarily to say that Eurydice gets to rescue Orpheus, though — I’ll just tell you that the unnamed narrator goes in search of the two most important people in her life (Aurora, her best friend, and Jack, a musician she’s fallen in love with) and that nothing quite pans out as you might expect.

This is a novel about girls who want things, and which deliberately explodes the confines of stereotypical femininity by making all that wanting okay. Take, for example, a passage like this:
Do you know what it’s like to be a girl pieced together out of appetite and impulse? We do. In that place of heat and noise I forget everything, forget being poor and being scared, forget the looming misery of school and the adult world, forget walls and masks and pretense. Up front I forget everything except drums and guitars and heat, the anchor of Aurora’s hand in mine as we’re tossed across an ocean made out of bodies, breathless and alive and blossoming with sound.
How could I possibly fail to fall in love with this book?

Like My Education, All Our Pretty Songs is simultaneously about the permissibility of female desire and about not letting desire blind you to why you want someone to begin with — because of the real, complex, multifaceted person that they are. Our narrator learns that the people she loves (including but not just the object of her desire, Jack) will always have a lot in their lives that has nothing whatsoever to do with her. This is not a measure of how much they love her in return, and putting ego and hurt and blind fear of loss aside is both the hardest and the most loving thing she can do.

Another not insignificant thing this novel does — that these three novels do, really — is reaffirm the importance of emotional ties between women. You kind of expect, because these are the stories we grew up with, for Jack to cause an insurmountable riff between Aurora and the narrator, or for her love for her best friend to be darkened and complicated by the resentment we’re told women will always, always feel for one another. Well, her love is complicated because human love is seldom simple, but All Our Pretty Songs never questions the fact that Aurora is hugely important to the narrator, and that girls get to feel that for one another. We desperately need more stories like this.

A few more gorgeous excerpts:
I thought I had been moved by Jack’s music before; that was nothing compared to what happens now. The music washes through the packed room like a flood tide. It’s the sound of spring rising out of a cracked and barren earth, gliding branches with new buds and loading vines with heavy blossoms, dusting bees with pollen. It’s spring giving way to summer, balmy air smelling of roses, hot skin meeting the cold shock of the ocean, starry nights as warm as kisses. It’s the soft touch of lips brushing the hollow of your throat, slow hands on your naked skin. It’s as elemental and necessary as the breath in my lungs, but far more beautiful than anything that is real. I open my eyes and look around me and see mouths open, cheeks wet with tears. But the hunger in their eyes terrifies me, their hands reaching for him as though they would tear him to pieces if he were among them. Devour him whole. No, I think, it’s too much. It’s too much. But I can’t stop it, can’t even stem my own desire, how much I want him, how much I want that music in me, too.

You think the world we live in is ordinary. We make noise and static to fill the empty spaces where ghosts live. We let other people grow our food, bleach our clothes. We seal ourselves in, clean the dirt from our skins, eat of animals whose blood does not stain our hands. We long ago left the ways of our ancestors, oracles and blood sacrifice, traffic with the spirit world, listening for the voices out of stones and trees. But maybe sometimes you have felt the uncanny, alone at night in a dark wood, of waiting by the edge of the ocean for the tide to come in. We have paved over the ancient world, but that does not mean we have erased it.
(Have you posted about these books too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

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  1. Reason #15,032 why I love you: The chances that I would have heard of any of these books without you is probably pretty close to zero. And my guess is that even if I'd seen them on the shelves of a bookstore, the blurbs on the jacket wouldn't have wow-ed me. But you, my dear, have this ability to *show* me the "why you MUST read this book" like no one else on the planet. I'm especially drawn to My Education, and am relieved to know right from the start that it doesn't treat bisexuality as a phase. Thank you for that, Ms. Choi. And thank you, Ana, for yet more beautiful, thoughtful reviews!

  2. I also was blown away by My Education. My review is here:
    Thank you for your review of All Our Pretty Songs. I will be checking that out.

  3. I loved The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets and have been wondering whether Tara Judd would be worth reading. Thanks for your review - I've just reserved the book at my library.

  4. Oh bother! None of my libraries have All Our Pretty Songs. It sounds wonderful -- the prose is, as you say, gorgeous. Though I am not exaaaactly a fan of Elizabeth Hand (so far), everything you say about McCarry's book sounds great.

  5. The first thing that grabbed me was the writing: the best way I can describe it is as the rebel child of The Secret History and Fingersmith.


  6. Thank you so much for this, because I had no idea that Eva Rice had another - The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a favorite. Looks like it's not yet published in the states, but I'll cross fingers (or do online order one of these days).

  7. Debi: You'll like the Susan Choi for sure!

    Judy: I love what you say about Choi's writing in your review. So true!

    Debbie: yay! Hope you enjoy it :)

    Jenny: It is great! Don't worry, she's different enough from Hand that I don't think you not being a big fan will be an issue at all.

    Clare: Let me know if you pick it up - I'd loooove to talk about it with you.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.