Jun 2, 2014

Reading Notes: The Luminaries, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves

Reading Notes: The Luminaries, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves

By way of introduction, I want to say that these are all incredibly rich novels that more than deserve to have full-length posts written about them. But because I know I’m not likely to ever get around to writing them, and because I’m trying to convince myself that writing something is better than writing nothing, these brief reading notes will have to do. The short of it is that I loved them all. Here’s a slightly more detailed version:

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Moody looked from face to face. No one man could really be called ‘guilty’, just as no one man could really be called ‘innocent’. They were—associated? Involved? Entangled? Moody frowned. He felt that he did not possess the right word to describe their interrelation.
It took me over a month to read The Luminaries, but that doesn’t mean the story didn’t grip me — it’s just that I made a deliberate decisions to take my time with it, to read other things at the same time, so I wouldn’t ending up feeling that my reading wasn’t going anywhere and getting frustrated. This approached paid off: when I finally finished this novel, I was only sorry that there wasn’t more of it for me to read.

Eleanor Catton’s second novel is nothing if not a good yarn: what made me really excited to read it last year were the comparisons to Wilkie Collins I kept seeing, and I can now say that they weren’t out of place. The Luminaries is a modern sensation novel, and mystery with supernatural elements: it opens when a stranger to Hokitika (a Gold Rush town in the Southern Island of New Zealand) interrupts a council of twelve man who are trying to make sense of some strange recent events. These resulted in one dead man, a mysterious hoard of gold found under his floor boards, another man vanishing completely, and a woman, town sex worker Anna Wetherell, imprisoned for trying to take her own life with an opium overdose. There is, of course, far more to this tale than meets the eye, and what eventually emerges is a complex entanglement of stories: there’s gold and opium smuggling, criminal plotting, ship wrecks, séances, tales of revenge, a close look at the disenfranchisement of women and people of colour, family secrets, a surprisingly moving love story, supernatural shenanigans, and a masterfully done final section where all the different plot stands come together.

I’m sure my reading of The Luminaries was influenced by the Eleanor Catton talk I went to earlier this year, but what I’m about to discuss is the kind of thing that might well have caught my attention anyway: I loved how, through the different characters’ versions of events, we get — as one of the twelve men at the secret council puts it — the truth and nothing but the truth, but hardly the whole truth. The lengthy first section of the novel moves back and forth in time through the different characters’ narrations, but it all takes place within the context of a story being told aloud before an audience of twelve other men. This is significant, and the reader is not allowed to forget it. Catton is interested in exploring the biases and limitations of individual perspective, but also in bringing these together through a Victorian bird’s eye view approach. None of the characters are in full possession of the facts, but we get to see the rich mosaic all their experiences form when placed side by side. And even more interestingly, we get to see why they approach the story the way they do. What do their blind spots tell us about them and the social world they inhabit? Why do they make the assumptions they do? What possibilities do certain aspects of their worldview blind them to?

It was fascinating to me to read what amounts to a flawlessly executed Victorian sensation novel that goes where authors like Collins and Braddon wouldn’t have been able to go. Catton writes openly about how Anna became a sex worker, about the hypocrisy behind the townsmen’s attitudes towards women, about racism and inequality, about the biases of the law, about identity and imperialism and the beliefs about individual success that fuelled the Gold Rush. The result is a novel that’s just as gripping and action-packed as it is thoughtful. I’m so glad I decided to make the time investment to read it.

Interesting bits:
Moody was a Cambridge fellow, born in Edinburgh to a modest fortune and a household staff of three. The social circles in which he had tended to move, at Trinity, and then at Inner Temple in his more recent years, had not at all the rigid aspect of the peerage, where one’s history and context differed from the next man only in degree; nevertheless, his education had made him insular, for it had taught him that the proper way to understand any social system was to view it from above. With his college chums (dressed in capes, and drunk on Rhenish wine) he would defend the merging of the classes with all the agony and vitality of the young, but he was always startled whenever he encountered it in practice.

Beauty, for Charlie Frost, was more or less synonymous with refinement. The ideal woman, in his mind, was one devoted to the project of her own enhancement, who was accomplished in the female arts of embroidery, piano-playing, pressing leaves, and the like; who sang sweetly, read quietly, and demurred to all opinion; who was a charming and priceless collectible; who loved, above all things, to be loved. Anna Wetherell had none of these qualities, but to admit that Anna did not at all resemble the fantastic shape of Frost’s phantasmic ideal is not at all to say that the banker did not care for her, or that he did not take his satisfaction like the rest. Imagining Anna and Staines together now, he felt a twinge of discomfort—almost of distaste.

Nilssen was very suspicious of Chinese men, having never known one personally; his were the kind of beliefs that did not depend upon empirical fact, and indeed, were often flatly disproved by it, though no disproof was ever enough to change his mind. He had decided, long ago, that Chinese men were duplicitous, and so they would be, whatever disproof he might encounter.

There was a snatch of something in her head, a maxim. A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past. Had she heard it spoken somewhere? Or had she composed it of her own accord?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
“Was that a bad lady, Papa?” she asked eagerly.
“But she looked bad.”
“There are very few bad people. There are just a lot of people that are unlucky.”
There are many, many angles from which I could approach Francie Nolan’s story of growing up in poverty in an immigrant community in early twentieth-century Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Francie is the kind of heroine I could hardly fail to fall for: like Anne Shirley or Emily Byrd Starr, Francie is an aspiring writer, and also a voracious reader who loves her local library. I loved Francie’s realisation that the books she read were part of the fabric of what made her who she was:
She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was of the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father staggering home drunk. She was all of these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only-the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life-the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a very different sort of book than either Anne of Green Gables or Emily of New Moon, yet the experience of reading it put me in mind of L.M. Montgomery. What usually happens with her books (and really, with most books about women’s lives at the turn of the twentieth-century) happened here: I found myself paying attention to the different and often contradictory strands that found their way into this story; to Smith’s compassion as a writer and to its limitations; to the narrative’s push against the limits that narrowed women’s lives and to the moments when it reinforced said limits.

As I’ve explained before, when I read classics I’m not really interested in deciding whether they’re progressive and therefore “good” or reactionary and therefore “bad”. What I’m infinitely interested in is how certain novels are especially good at capturing our culture’s ambiguities when it comes to, say, attitudes towards poverty or female sexuality — and there’s enough fodder in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for multiple theses.

For example, the novel’s approach to female desire and sexual agency is often refreshing. At one point we’re told that Francie’s mother’s, Katie, married her father Johnny against her better judgement in part because there was no socially sanctioned expression for her desire outside of traditional matrimony. Francie’s aunt, Sissy, is a “loose woman”, and yet she’s portrayed compassionately: she’s a kind, capable woman whom Francie and her family admire:
Johnny studied Sissy as he smoked an after-supper cigar. He wondered what criterion people used when they applied the tags “good” and “bad” to their fellowmen. Take Sissy. She was bad. But she was good. She was bad where the men were concerned. But she was good because wherever she was, there was life, good, tender, overwhelming, fun-loving and strong-scented life. He hoped that his newly-born daughter would be a little like Sissy.
My favourite scene was perhaps the one where a teenaged Francie asked her mother if she should have slept with the soldier who, at the end of a two-day involvement on the eve of the US entering WW1, broke her heart. Katie tells her the following (and remember, this is before the existence of freely available contraception):
“As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger — a man she had known less than forty-eight hours. Horrible things might have happened to you. Your whole life might have been ruined. As your mother, I tell you the truth.
“But as a woman ...” she hesitated. “I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way.”
I loved this, and I loved that Smith acknowledged that Francie wanted to sleep with this soldier, even if she knew that the possible consequences weren’t worth the risk. The women in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn aren’t, for the most part, punished for experiencing desire — yet as refreshing as this was, there are severe limitations to the novel’s approach to gender. The thing that saddened me the most was to see Smith write about single women with such cruelty. She writes about their “spinsterly spleen” and “starved loved instincts”, and as if that wasn’t enough she then calls them “barren women” for good measure. As much as the novel draws complex female characters who are allowed to be fully human, it’s unable to move beyond the (still infuriatingly common) assumption that all women “really” want marriage and children. This is visible in Sissy’s story too — Sissy is eventually redeemed by motherhood, and her desire for children is used to explain away any sexual agency she’d been previously allowed.

It also made me sad that both Francie and her mother, despite being surrounded by amazing women in their family, tell each other that they have no women friends because they “hate other women”. Francie decides that women are untrustworthy and that she hates them after an incident in which the women of her neighbourhood get together to stone an unmarried newcomer and her illegitimate baby. Francie’s distress at the incident and compassion for the young mother are of course completely understandable, but the conclusions she draws from what she witnesses just don’t follow. The women of Williamsburg don’t turn on the newcomer because women are inherently treacherous and disloyal; they do so because they live in a world where there could be severe social and material consequences for them and their children if they don’t distance themselves from women who trespass against patriarchal norms. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is generally so good at denouncing the tendency to interpret systemic problems as individual flaws (i.e., “the poor are lazy”); what a pity that it fails here.

There were two other scenes that stood out to me: one, when Francie and her brother Neely visit the doctor to get their shots after a morning playing outside and making mud pies, and Francie overhears some horrifying pro-Eugenics comments from the doctor and nurse:
When the needle jabbed, Francie never felt it. The waves of hurt started by the doctor’s words were racking her body and drove out all other feeling. While the nurse was expertly tying a strip of gauze around her arm and the doctor was putting his instrument in the sterilizer and taking out a fresh needle, Francie spoke up.
“My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me.” They stared at this bit of humanity who had become so strangely articulate. Francie’s voice went ragged with a sob. “You don’t have to tell him. Besides it won’t do no good. He’s a boy and he don’t care if he is dirty.” She turned, stumbled a little and walked out of the room.
As the door closed, she heard the doctor’s surprised voice.
“I had no idea she’d understand what I was saying.” She heard the nurse say, “Oh, well,” on a sighing note.
The other is the conversation Francie has with her teacher when she tells her that writing the truth about her everyday life is “sordid”:
“Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It’s a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There’s work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they’re too lazy to work. There’s nothing beautiful about laziness.”
(Imagine mama lazy!)
Francie sticks to her convictions, even if it means sacrificing her “A” in English. I really liked the novel’s humane approach to poverty, and yet I couldn’t help but pause at Katie Nolan’s “I’d rather die than receive charity” attitude. I understand its context, of course, but I’ve always believed that there’s no shame in needing and accepting help, and that survival and success achieved through cooperation and compassion are in no way inferior to survival and success achieved on one’s own.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I didn’t want a world in which I had to choose between blind human babies and tortured monkey ones. To be frank, that’s the sort of choice I expect science to protect me from, not give me. I handled the situation by not reading more.
The Davis primate centre is today credited with significant advances in our understanding and treatment of SIV, Alzheimer’s, autism, and Parkinson’s. Nobody’s arguing these issues are easy.
Finally we get to my favourite of these three excellent novels, which is of course saying a lot. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is so closely aligned with my interests it’s ridiculous. It’s also gorgeously written, brilliantly executed, funny and bittersweet, and incredibly moving.

I’ve been hesitating about how to write these notes, and the reason is this: the premise of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is only fully revealed over seventy pages in. I knew what the premise was before picking it up and didn’t realise this was going to be the case, which means I went in without even knowing I’d been (kind of) spoiled. I will, of course, have to give away this thing that isn’t immediately revealed if I’m to write about this book without being annoyingly vague, so consider this a spoilers warning. But to be completely honest, it was knowing that made me want to read this book in the first place, and I don’t think it took anything away from my reading experience.

Rosemary, the narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, grew up with two siblings: an older brother, Lowell, and a sister, Fern. When we meet Rosemary, her brother and sister are no longer in her life, and she has transformed from a talkative child to a taciturn young woman. Eventually the truth is revealed: Rosemary was raised with a chimpanzee, as part of an experiment on human and primate learning and development at Indiana University. Her sister, Fern, was only three months older than herself, and for the first five years of Rosemary’s life she was constantly at her side. The two were as inseparable as twins, and the small detail of their belonging to different species had no bearing on their love for each other. Here’s what Rosemary says about the delayed revelation:
Some of you will have figured that out already. Others may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld Fern’s essential simian-ness for so long.
In my defense, I had my reasons. I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee. I had to move halfway across the country in order to leave that fact behind. It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone.
But much, much more important, I wanted you to see how it really was. I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already, you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. You’re thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet. After Fern left, Grandma Donna told Lowell and me that when our dog Tamara Press had died, our mother had been devastated — just the way she was now, being the implication. Lowell reported this to our father and we were all so offended Grandma Donna had to give it right up.
It’s possible that I’d have been inclined to see Fern as a sister and not a pet all along, and it’s possible that I wouldn’t. In any case, Karen Joy Fowler’s writing brings the reality of Fern’s relationship with her family to life in vivid and moving detail.

When Rosemary and Fern are five, something happens: Rosemary is sent to stay with her grandparents for a few days, and when she comes back, the family has moved and Fern is gone. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves edges its way towards the truth of what happened bit by bit, and all the while it addresses the unreliability of memory, the stories we tell ourselves, and the emotional barriers we use to cope with the most difficult truths.

My favourite thing about this novel is that it never oversimplifies any of the questions it asks. It addresses science (including gender and sexuality and dodgy scientific claims that naturalise patriarchal behaviour, which never fails to make me happy), ethics, and the costs and benefits of animal research; but — as the quote I opened with puts it — it never pretends these issues are easy. Instead, it’s nuanced and unfailingly humane, and it treats not only the issues at hand but its characters (human and otherwise) with the complexity they merit.

One last bit I really liked:
There was something NotSame about Fern and me, something so outrageous that Lowell hadn’t even suspected it until he went to South Dakota. Something I hadn’t known until he told it to me ten years later over breakfast at Bakers Square. The NotSame was this: Like a chair or a car or a television, Fern could be bought and sold. The whole time she was living in the farmhouse with us as part of our family, the whole time she was keeping herself busy being our sister and daughter, she was, in fact, the property of Indiana University.


  1. Your "brief reading notes" are pretty impressive! Of these, I have only read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I loved. Your point about the treatment of single women is well taken -- so painful and unnecessary, given how other prejudices are explored in a much more rounded and human way. I don't know if I will ever get to the others (so many books!), but you make them quite tempting.

  2. I really need to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - it's the kind of book I love.

  3. I'm so happy! I knew, I JUST KNEW, you would love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I'm just delighted you finally read it and loved it. So so so happy!

    I have the other two on my to be read very soon pile. I can't wait to get to them!

  4. I also just finished The Luminaries and I felt exactly the same way as you did - I was sad there wasn't more of it! Every night I would skip off to bed happily to read some more pages of this brilliant book. So sad it's over, and I'm glad you also enjoyed it.

  5. Did I tell you I got We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves? I ordered it and Science Tales after your email, but Science Tales hasn't come yet. I've also been incredibly lucky the past couple weeks--3 of my "wish-listed because of you" books finally came up on PaperbackSwap. So I have a lovely pile of Ana books sitting right here on my table waiting for me to add to Library Thing. :D And The Luminaries--I suspect that will be there soon too. It sounds so good, but also it scares me a bit.

  6. lol your brief notes or not full posts knock my actual reviews out of the water. You are such a gem, never leave usssss

  7. I'm so glad you finally got to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves! I've been wondering if you reacted, as I did, to the way the novel steers between a kind of anti-slavery point of view for animals and an anti-sentimentalist point of view for humans until it reaches a point where they converge. On the one hand, it's wrong to think we "own" an animal. On the other hand, it's wrong to anthropomorphize an animal to such an extent that you forget its nature. Respect for animals entails (good word, huh?) research about their needs before we capture and try to adopt them into our families. This is a particular problem with parrots and macaws right now, as the "market" for chimpanzees has declined after incidents where (surprise!) they got old enough to become aggressive.

  8. I knew, I knew that you would love We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Isn't Karen Joy Fowler marvelous in it? She's won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year, which I'm so pleased about -- she deserves it a hundred percent. One of the things that struck me about the book was the way she managed to include such nuance and sadness in all of the issues she was discussing, but still letting the book be funny. Ugh, I just loved it so much.

  9. Two of these now on the MUST READ, thank you. And I so appreciate your thoughts on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I love your review style. Keep em coming! short or long or brief and crazy-involved - you are SO good.

  10. All three of these seem like full post reviews to me! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been on my list for so long it's a bookish sin.

  11. I'm really excited to read THe Luminaries before my trip to New Zealand in Septemebr. I hope I get to it!

    Also, I'm thrilled you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I love that book so dearly. You made some incredible points about the way women are portrayed and their lack of options. Katie always struck me as such a strong woman. Her husband is revered and loved, but she's the one who actually has to hold her family together and make the hard decisions. I just love her.

  12. Your thoughts on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn have compelled me to want to reread it - especially since I haven't since I was very young. Also, since I love going into a book totally blind, I scrolled through the "spoilery" parts of We Are All.., but it is now on my TBR list because I am intrigued! Thanks.


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.