Great Fiction: How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life by Mameve …

Great Fiction: How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life by Mameve …


Towards the finish of Mameve Medweds new novel the narrator, Abby, asks Can you ever know anybody?

Its a particularly germaine question for her – during her life up to this point numerous people whom she should know well show themselves to be not at all who she thinks they are. Person after person confounds her; a lot of the action is pushed by Abbys consistent inability to see what people really want, what really motivates their behavior, what turns them on and off. Theres an innocence about her, a naivete if you will, that is slightly responsible for this, but upon reflection we see that it also involves the simple fact that each of us often puts rare spins on the different parts of our lives, and that we must adjust to this trait in others just as they must adjust to it in us. For example, at one point Abby tells us that a nice characterize of one of her relationships was the ability of a lover to attack the cockroaches in the silverware drawer (!). This is the mark of a truly perceptive writer, to introduce an idiosyncrasy such as this thats totally original however closest believable. I feel certain that many readers will recognize strands of their own lifes journey to maturity and adulthood while reading Abbys.

It would be very tempting for the author of a novel like this – at its foundations its really a love story – to resort to schmaltz, or sentimentality, but Medwed never does. The reader always knows that Abby is misjudging people and things, making mistakes, seeing things with limited perspective; but during the story she gains a lot of wisdom. As we travel with her on this journey its almost like watching a closed bud open up and blossom into a beautiful flower. And a large part of her charm is that shes not naive or innocent about everything, just some things. Culturally, for example, shes tuned in to the older, more typical things like e.e. cummings in addition as modern offerings like an artist popping six hundred square feet of Bubble Wrap and Memoirs of a Geisha. This is a woman who has grounding in the larger world beyond her small native part of it.

Her small native part is Cambridge, Mass. Abby is a native of Cambridge, of the lifestyle called the Harvard thing, which she both loves and hates. As we meet her shes been going by some changes – a breakup, the death of her mother and a friend in an earthquake in India, her fathers marrying one of his graduate students (named Kiki) and moving to California a little too soon after his wifes departure. She makes her living as an antiques merchant with a booth in a mart called Objects of Desire. On a slow Monday her colleague Gus happens to notice a chamber pot in Abbys booth; he indicates that it might be valuable and encourages her to take it to the tryouts for the TV program Antiques Roadshow. She does, and gets chosen for the program when it turns out that it can be authenticated that the pot once belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. From this point on the fun begins. The scene where Abbys colleague Gus learns the pot in her booth contains a nifty irony. Knowing that Abby is depressed over her lover Clydes recent betrayal and departure, he comments That son of a bitch who doesnt know a priceless object when he sees it, referring to Abby as a priceless object. However, this exact observation could be applied to Abby herself, being that a pot that belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning has been in her family for years and she didnt know it. As we will see, this is a metaphor for not picking up things about people already when all the signs are right under her nose.

The pot is appraised at seventy five thousand dollars, and Abby becomes quite well known among collectors because the show is repeated endlessly on TV, and her business improves as a consequence. The plot thickens when Abby gets a letter from a Mr. Snodgrass, the attorney for a brother and sister named Lavinia and Ned. Here, background and exposition become very important.

Abbys family and that of Ned and Lavinia have been friendly for many years. The three grew up together. At some point Abbys mother and Henrietta (Ned and Lavinias mom) became domestic partners. Abby and Ned cultivate the romance which it has been their destiny to pursue, but it falls apart when Ned writes a novel, a blatant roman a clef thats greatly insensitive to Abby.

Abby eliminates him from her life, very wounded, and he goes off to New York where he takes up with a Columbia professor. In the meantime it is Lavinia who orchestrates a legal scheme to get the poets pot, in addition as virtually everything else, away form Abby on the grounds that it was more her mothers character than Abbys mothers. (Lavinias complete aura is summed up in one sentence; She was working as a thinker for a think tank out near MIT.) A deposition is set for six weeks hence; Abby enlists another girlhood friend, Mary Agnes Finch, as her attorney. Mary Agnes minces no words in letting Abby know how she feels about taking the case – I must say that the logistics have been a nightmare, for such a little case – A reporter for the Boston Globe, Todd Tucker, calls and says he wants to do a story on Abby and the chamber pot, her TV turn up, the works. Here Abby makes another huge misjudgment, thinking Todds seduction of her is genuine when its in fact just a method he uses to get juicy information out of her. However, there is serendipity in her encounter with Todd Tucker – on their antiquing excursion she finds another old and valuable piece, one that once belonged to King George! Finally there is Abbys most recent ex, the lummox Clyde, who contacts her to meet for a thoroughly new age apology session that Medwed handles brilliantly. Its simultaneously d piercing and funny.

As a consequence of his having to come to Cambridge for the deposition, Ned and Abby reconsider and reconcile. Not without a price, but they reconcile, and the implication is that they live happily ever after. At the end Abby can now see many things with a lucidity and clarity she before lacked altogether.

This is a novel about a few different things – relationships, memory, the relationship between the past and the present, trust, gaining wisdom by experience, and the long lasting bonds that sustain or do not sustain friends and lovers over time. It also has as one of its central concerns the worth of objects and why human beings consider certain artifacts to have huge monetary value. These are all issues that are directly addressed in the novel either by the author or by the characters, and in particular Id like to look at the relationships between Abby and various others in a moment. However, there is another concept which arises without really being clearly discussed, and this is what you might call the Big Event that occurs in peoples lives. No one here seems to have a comparatively quiet, ordinary existence — people perish in earthquakes on the other side of the world, have their first novel published (and without exception panned) by big New York publishers, run off to La Jolla with a wife forty years younger, take their lifelong friends to court, accidentally stumble across very scarce possessions from centuries gone by. Theyre caught up in extraordinary circumstances that most of us cant imagine being involved in. The Big Outward Events mirror the emotions inside.

In the beginning of the novel Abby takes the Boston subway to the TV studio, struggling to carry the chamber pot up the stairs. A young man offers to help; she turns down the offer, saying she can manage, which is not true. Shes been done so wrong by men that she now refuses to get involved, already at this shallow level, as if rebuking the young fellows offer of help says to all men, I dont need you. Just how badly shes been treated is illustrated in the one real time scene she has with her most recent ex, Clyde. They meet for coffee. He just cant get it right – Abby notes, I smell too much cologne. I turn my head. He informs her that hes on a journey of making amends, of apologizing to everyone hes ever wronged so he can wipe his spirit clean. This is a gorgeous send up of new age spiritual thinking and self improvement techniques, practiced incorrectly. Clyde goes on to recite a list of things hes sorry for, some of which are:

I should never have moved into your apartment without paying half the rent. I apologize.

I should never have been more attracted to your family background, to your familys house, than I was to you. I apologize.

I should never have pretended at restaurants that I left my credit cards at home. I apologize.

And on and on and on, some of the apologies being much worse than these. While we laugh hysterically at this buffoon, we also feel sorry for Abby, sorry that she didnt know this idiot was doing all these things to her! Her good faith, her honest belief, was horribly betrayed.

Her basic goodness as a person is also demonstrated in the scenes where, in flashback, she tells of her young love with Ned and the day he finally finished his novel, called The Cambridge Ladies Who Live In Furnished Souls after the poem by e.e. cummings. Lets see:

This is the most perfect moment of my life, I thought. My heart swelled.

By page thirty my heart had shrunk into a tiny, hard, cold nub.Joy had turned to misery. Love to shock.

Every little secret I had ever told Ned, every fear and embarrassment and doubt bellowed out there from the page. My troubles with my father; my worries about my mother; my own childhood grind on him, all wrapped up into a scathing critique of our Cambridge lives, our Cambridge friends, generic Cambridge ladies, and our own Cambridge mothers in particular.

Shortly after this episode her insincere seduction by Todd Tucker follows, making three times within barely eighty pages that we observe her heart being broken. But her will to go on, bolstered by her ultimate faith in the goodness of things, carries the day in the end.

I should like to point out, in addition, that this novel is a goldmine for students of certain concepts in feminist literary theory such as that of man made language, popularized by Dale Spender in her book of that name, and of concepts in lesbian/gay literary theory such as that of the lesbian continuum, introduced by Adrienne high in her book Blood, Bread, and Poetry. These investigations are a little beyond our scope here, but well worth looking into for those so inclined.

Finally a associate of observations that come from Abbys childhood. The first concerns a toy store called Irvings. When the neighborhood kids go there with their parents in accompaniment the proprietors, Irving and his wife Doris, are polite, friendly and courteous. Little does Abby know! One day she is sent back, alone, with a broken toy. This is what she gets:

Youve used it wrong, Irving complained. You ruined it. Dont they teach you how to read directions at that fancy school of yours?

You broke it, Doris seconded. No smiles, no pats, no lollipops.

We have so much shoplifting from you spoiled brats, who can tell if you already paid for it?

This is an important episode because it shows us that, already with this early childhood exposure to how two faced people can be, Abby nevertheless grows up trusting and gullible.

The second is more positive. While they are nevertheless young children, Ned teaches Abby how to ride a bike. So what? you may ask, but by the end of the story we see that this is a telegraph move on Medweds part, and one that we can only understand in retrospect, when we have read the whole book. It makes a nice point about being true to ones character and the continuity of the self over time. Look for it as you read.

Its not easy to make a comprehensive list of the pleasures of reading How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Save My Life. There are many. Ive barely scratched the surface here. Just be confident that its a ride of self discovery that discerning readers of fiction will not want to miss.

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