Is about how the pain of both life and death is made easier to digest in the form of stories. The scene begins at a snow covered funeral where an elderly man gives a eulogy to an imaginary group of mourners.
In 1965 Abel and Junon had Joseph, the first born. They also had a little girl, and when Joseph was in kindergarten he developed Burkitt's Lymphoma. The tragedy is not told directly with the watched brutality of a child's illness but in the form of gentle puppets. Neither the daughter nor the parents were compatible with Joseph. In desperation the couple conceives a third child, Henri, but his placenta was also not a match. Joseph died 18 months after the birth of Henri, to make Elizabeth the eldest of what was to be eventually two brothers. The memory of Joseph fades.
Years later, when Junon is elderly, yet no less beautiful, she gathers a tray of tea and sweets together in a homey, upper middle class house. But while carrying the tray she drops it to the ground, and the world blurs. She sinks to the floor.
The scene changes to Elizabeth speaking to a specialist about the family problems and her own sense of herself to be cold and empty. Elizabeth is a playwright, and her brother, Henri bought her the theater for her to perform her works and they were successful. But, Henri did not pay for the theater in direct right and was greatly in debt.
The family members; Elizabeth, Abel and Henri stand in court and Abel agrees to pay Henri's debt. But Elizabeth says she will pay the full sum as long as Henri is banished. The judge finds the agreement to be as tastelessly cold as it is over personal for a courtroom, but since the debt needs to be paid, Elizabeth's terms are accepted. Though Henri is banished, it is not because Elizabeth's life is perfect. Her only child, a son has schizophrenia, an essentially incurable disease.
Junon comes back from her doctor's appointment to tell Abel, between puffs of elegant cigarette, that she has cancer, though it is curable with a bone marrow transplant, but the transplant could cause a reaction whereby the body basically freaks out at the unknown marrow and starts attacking itself.
In the end, it is the inutile Henri who is the match for Junon as well as Elizabeth's son. Junon chooses Henri and the family is brought together for a functionally dysfunctional Christmas, with lots of wine, a children's play and a renegade trip to Midnight Mass.
By Sarah Bahl
I remember my Remarkable Literary Journeys Professor at American University, stating that more women went into insane asylums during the 1950s than during any other decade of U.S. history. It is unknown as to why exactly - perhaps the stringent world of the 1950s and the pressures put on women to be the stereotypical smiling housewife in high heels proved to be too much, for more than one woman.
The Bell Jar (2005 Edition) by Sylvia Plath begins, "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions." This is a very odd way to begin any novel. One would hope the novelist to be stupid about executions. The alternative of being an expert at executions and all the procedures therein has yet to become novel worthy. "It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves. I thought it must be the worst thing in the world."
Ester Greenwood, the owner of the thoughts on execution is a lost soul in New York, having won a scholarship with a high end fashion magazine to come to N.Y. for a month and jumpstart a career in writing by serving as a guest writer and editor. The trip includes invitations to a variety of high styled events, all expenses paid. Ester is not spending so much time writing as she is going to parties and being hung over, vomiting with a girlfriend, getting food poisoning from crabmeat, and thinking too much about the meretriciousness of her world.
Ester's character is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield and how he hated everyone for being a phony. She does not want to do anything the way others do it. Ester has a constant element of outcast to her. She is not a hit with her boss, Jay Cee at the magazine due to her lax work habits and she doesn't seem to have any normal friendships with the other girls. She spends time with Doreen, who is also on scholarship with the magazine, ditching a party to go to a bar with some random men and Ester becomes the third wheel, as Doreen hooks up with one of the many notables of N.Y. at the time.
Ester returns from the New York trip, where she was a bright, straight A student with high expectations among a sea of equally if not more qualified girls. She lives in Boston and is certain, upon her return, that she will spend the rest of her summer working on a writing course. But her mother informs Ester she did not make the course. There is a language class for Ester to take and Jay Cee did suggest that to become an editor she must speak a couple of languages, but Ester decides not to enroll in any course at all that summer.
Ester seems to have trouble sleeping and does not really want to do anything. And so she descends into a horrifying world of the mentally ill. At one moment in juncture Ester writes a letter to a friend but considers her own handwriting to be too odd and tears the letter to small pieces. She puts the remains in her pocketbook and brings them to an appointment with her psychiatrist and wonders if he would want to see them. It is as if with a mentally ill person the line from Point A heads toward Point B, but never gets there. The line instead goes off into space and no one knows where. Still, Ester's illness does not merit her for the treatment she received.
She is given shock "treatments" such as electroconvulsive therapy and insulin based therapies. The treatments are as crazy as the patients' behavior. It also seems the patients have no rights and in a certain way, Ester is like a baby who is under the control of everyone but herself. She cannot say no to shock therapies. Her meals are all doled out at the same times. If breakfast does not come it means the patient is receiving treatment. Ester watches for her meals, terrified that one day, her breakfast will not come.
The world of mental illness is vast, convoluted and barbaric. It just seems that anyone considered mentally ill, or crazy, is left at the whim of medical professionals to be screwed with. Her initial foreboding thoughts on the Rosenbergs prove to be accurately prophetic, as the shock treatment is a type of death from which a person may or may not recover.
Ester succumbs to being considered mad. It is difficult for the reader to swallow her descent as she is such a talented girl who is nice enough, even sweet, and one wants her to essentially suck it up and stop being so weird. But she doesn't. Her mental despair does not add to her artistic talents. It only detracts and robs her of a good quality of life. Her world clearly depicts a kaleidoscopic vagueness that is mental illness.
Ester's character is not only difficult to digest in terms of frustration to the reader dealt by loss of promise, but there is also an irritation factor to consider. One annoying aspect is that she either has been affected by some malediction or is a hypochondriac. During the course of the 244 page novel with a setting that spans in time over the period of about a year, Ester gets; sick from over drinking, food poisoning from crab meat, ill from mental strain, sinus infections, a broken leg from skiing, and the first time she has sex she begins to hemorrhage. The medically related drama serves as a nuisance as it does not seem to add to plot, though it perhaps drives formation of character.
The novel's interesting denouement is that the final outcome of Ester is unknown. She is about to meet with her psychiatrists to see if she is allowed out of the institution she is in. "The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room."
By Sarah Bahl
Nancy Price's most famous work is a story of survival, mental illness and abuse written in a simple yet detailed midwestern style. "The day before Martin lost his wife Sara, he watched her walk away from him, her long hair lifted at the edges by wind from the Atla ntic. A beauty shop door shut behind her, flashing sun. Martin's eyes were as brown and cold as leftover coffee."
Sara is the perfect victim in a sense, for men that is. She is thin. Very thin. Too skinny, yet has sizable breasts. Her naturally blond hair is curled at the beauty parlor.
" 'How's that!' Carmen held out a mirror, and Sara twisted around to look at the sides and the back of her head.
'Fine' Sarah said. 'That's just the way my husband likes it.' She rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand, her eyes shut, then gave the mirror back."
Sara rubs her forehead with the heel of her hand a lot. A victim gesture. It is a cute version of facepalm, that in any given culture means nothing positive; sarcasm, frustration, anger, annoyance, fear or worry. Sara's facepalm could mean any or all of these emotions. Sara looks tired and it is often repeated how thin she is, for like a trapped animal her only thoughts lie in escape.
Martin is that predator. He beats Sara for accidentally leaving his sweater out to be eaten by moths. He beats her for running away. She falls down the steps of their Manhasset house. Ruptures her spleen. Breaks her wrist so that it will be permanently turned at an odd 10 degree angle. The doctor comments that it must have been quite a fall. Yes, it was quite a fall.
At the YMCA, Sara takes swimming lessons. At home and pretty much any other time, she plans. She used to be afraid to swim. Her brother died while swimming across a lake with her when he had pneumonia. He made a face and started to drown, while clinging to Sara. They are both in their teens, and his weight drags Sara under the surface of the water.
The guilt from her brother's demise haunts Sara, as he clung to her and she went down with him but an innate mechanism, the will to live revived in her and she fought, and bit and kicked until her brother let go. He stayed down and she came back up for air.
Sara had hated the water ever since. Feared it. But her husband's demeaning assaults, his abuse forces her into the water. There is no where else to go. She tells Martin, that she is taking a course at Boston University when she is really taking the swimming lessons.
The women at the Y notice Sara's bruises. On her back, her legs and her arms. Sara tells the other women that she gardens and bruises easily. They wonder at her excuses but since she is an adult making excuses, there is little the women can do, but coax her into the water and cheer for her when she begins to swim. She probably already knew how to swim, but getting in the water would be the hard part. And swim she does, naturally and strongly through clear, clean water, where it is safe and the world makes sense for a time.
But if she comes home late at all from swimming, or classes as far as Martin knows, then he beats her. He beats her for breathing. Then he will bring her gifts. A black, silk teddy that Sara puts on in front of Martin. All her bruises are revealed as she wears the lingerie. She makes love to Martin and lets him do the same to her, pretending that she likes it because if she doesn't, she's afraid he will kill her.
But all the while Sara lives without identity under Martin's totalitarian hegemony, she maps out routes for an escape. She works part time at a library, a job she puts up a fight for with Martin. She loves books.
But very little money could be saved for an escape. It all goes into a bank account she shares with Martin. Still, she plans out an escape route all the same. Sara is brave.
At Manhasset, Martin makes Sara go for a boat ride with himself and a neighbor named Joe. Sara says she doesn't like water, but Martin makes her go anyway as she knew he would. "The water would be as cold as a pistol against her head: I'll kill you if you ever leave me again...Sara gripped the boat's edge, her stiff legs jammed against the wood. The lump on her head ached, and so did her bruised breast. The first of the big swells battered the side. Sara had seen them coming, knew they would come - tide ran with the wind against it over the shallow bay. Their boat heeled crazily in darkness with no moon...the boom swept across the lee of the cockpit like a sythe - swept across water that poured over the coaming and an empty seat."
Sara was swimming from buoy to buoy, ignoring Martin's calls for her. She swims to the blackened house. She had broken the lights with stones earlier that day so she would know where to swim.
Martin and Joe go to the police station. And the missing Sara is reported. The police suspect the Burney marriage was not the smoothest and inquire at the train and bus stations if any blond was seen that night. No one has any information to give them.
Martin always thought, "Women were different from men. Painted their faces. Liked to be bossed. Twitched the asses and tits around and didn't look you in the eye. Mysteries." Yes, Martin Burney that erudite fellow on women, thinking all women are prostitutes who like to be beaten up and told what to do.
Martin finds journals of Sara's, though one should find it odd that he never went through them earlier as controlling as he is. It is only after her escape/death that he bothers to break the locks and know Sara's neatly ordered thoughts. Maybe it didn't make a difference to him what she thought until he really needed to find her. Or felt he did.
She writes about her days, how she feels bad lying to get out of dates, how she met Martin. Their honeymoon. The joy of their first knowing each other. She never writes of when she was first hit or how it happened. But her words, all the same descend into a pit, going from the thoughts of a happily married woman with a future ahead of her, perhaps graduate school in library sciences to feeling like a beaten down prostitute.
But she swims toward the house she had with Martin, with its tomato red kitchen he got for her after he broke her toe. She does not turn on the lights but braids her blond wet hair and pins it to the top of her head. She dries off any wet footsteps in the same manner she swept away her footsteps from sand on the beach. She takes the little money and food she managed to stash away without Martin's notice, puts on a brunette wig of short, wavy hair.
In pants, a long sleeved t-shirt, low heeled sandals and tinted glasses, Sara hurries behind pines, along the side of the road until she gets to the bus station. She takes a bus to Boston, then one on to Cedar Falls Iowa.
Sara is starving, but manages to find a job just in time, working for a University of Northern Iowa Professor, Dr. Channing who specialized in Henry James, but was in a car accident and now needs round the clock care. Sara attends to Dr. Channing during the afternoons. The job is offered to her by Mrs. Nepper, the lady who Sara rents a room from.
Sara wears her wig at all times, and at first refuses to be seen in public with Ben Woodward, who she is dating, a tall cute redheaded professor who lives next door. Ben works in the drama department and it is here the plot takes a rather fantastic turn. Sara dresses as a man with the help of Ben who gives her access to costume pieces from the university's theater department. She uses the costume to go in disguise to see her blind mother, who is in a nursing home.
Ben never asks her why she cross dresses. But Ben is highly educated and doesn't pry. Sara has a right to be cautious to say the least, as her husband quit his job at Rambaugh Computer Sales and Service so he can stalk her full time. The story takes on the sensibility of a Greek tragedy. It hints that men, if not women have predatory tendencies, but it takes education and mental stability not to act on them. Perhaps women have such instincts as well, but as for Sara, she is too busy fending people off to act unnecessarily aggressively toward anyone.
Though Ben is nice, he is not a rescuer. It is her husband who shoots himself, as Sara stands in front of him in drag, as they find themselves in a motel room together. Perhaps her cross dressing symbolizes the extremes that someone who is abused loses their identity. As long as Martin was alive Sara's identity goes from Sara Burney to Laura Pray in her brunette wig to Larry Day with a beard. But when Martin dies, Sara becomes herself again. Also, Martin was not the only man with stalker tendencies, as she was also being given explicit notes by a student who lived nearby. Martin shoots at the student the same night before he kills himself. It scares the student so Sara is hopefully safe for the rest of her life, and will be able to be herself.
By Sarah Bahl