Posted by: patti | October 6, 2009

Growing Pains

Book Shuffle offered up two coming-of-age novels recently.  Both books are about young women who leave home to start a new life, but these books could not be more different.  I tend to avoid — I don’t actively avoid them, it’s more a case of not seeking them out — coming-of-age novels, primarily because my own novel is probably a coming-of-age story.  (Sally hasn’t let me know yet how much growth she’s capable of; for now, I’m just listening to the stories she tells me and watching her figure out how to get out of the messes I stick her in.)

The first novel was Martha Quest by Doris Lessing.  I’ve been meaning to read Lessing for a long time — she’s on that “should read” list in my head — and I picked this particular one because I was looking to be taken completely outside of myself.  The story of a young woman on a farm in Africa in the late 1930s struck me as, well, as the very opposite of my life.  And Martha Quest is the first volume in Lessing’s Children of Violence series, so I figured if I liked Martha, my next Lessing would be chosen for me.

The second novel Shuffle gave me was Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.  Tóibín is one of those writers I was sure I’d already read:  he’s an Irish novelist and I’m addicted to Irish fiction, I have seven of his books on my shelf, I’ve been to readings and talks he’s given in Dublin and in New York, and I have certainly read his essays and stories in periodicals.  But when I brought home Brooklyn and started paging through his other books, I was embarrassed to discover I have not read any them.  Thanks to Brooklyn, however, those other six are now neatly stacked on my bedside shelf.

Unfortunately, I won’t be piling Doris Lessing volumes next to my bed anytime soon.  Lessing isn’t known for her bedtime stories, for one thing, and for another, I almost didn’t finish Martha Quest.  Lessing’s prose is dense and difficult, and not a lot happens in the story — it’s a lovely, slow, meditative look at how time and place creates a person.  Martha is prickly and dreamy and idealistic, and most of the time, I wanted to reach onto the page and shake her.

Martha is 15 when the novel opens, and we spend three difficult years with her.  She is aware of and rebelling against the hypocrisy and snobbery of her Colonialist parents and neighbors, and she’s struggling to find her own point of view in the books she borrows and devours.  For much of the book she is rudderless, leaving school, wandering the farm, taking off for the city, drifting in and out of relationships.  In the city, she tries on new selves: she works and goes to classes, she parties, she flirts with politics, she flirts with men, she has her first sexual relationship and betrayal.  All the while, she is not at home in her own skin, knowing only that she can do better, should do more, and is meant to do something meaningful.  And all the while, the reader is dimly aware that Martha is looking outside herself for the acceptance and love she did not find at home and cannot find within herself.

It is not an easy read, but then again, should a coming-of-age novel be easy to read?

Eilis Lacey, the young Irishwoman at the center of Brooklyn, has none of Martha’s confidence or nerve; she is shy and thoughtful and generous.  Like most of her family, and unlike Martha, she cannot express herself; she keeps herself to herself.  Also unlike Martha, Eilis leaves home reluctantly: there is no work for her in Enniscorthy, and a priest arranges a new life for her in Brooklyn.  Eilis is older than Martha, but she seems younger, less worldly, and her bouts of homesickness are tender and touching.

Eilis, too, works and goes to classes.  She struggles with a different kind of hypocrisy and racism, as she learns to navigate the complex interpersonal politics of New York in the early 1950s.  And she, too, has her first experiences with love and men and sex.  Eilis has a more solid sense of self and a better moral compass than Martha; even when she lets a relationship go too far, she recognizes and rights her missteps.

Because I do not want to give away the ending to either book, I am being deliberately, maddeningly vague, but Eilis is faced with a choice, and like just about every Irish heroine before her, she chooses duty.  Tóibín puts a new(ish) spin on this definition of duty, but Eilis does what she does because she believes she has no other choice but to honor a promise she has made.  It is a deliberate, considered choice, which stands in stark contrast to the “I guess this is what happens next” attitude Martha assumes when she allows circumstances to be chosen for her.

Whenever I’m ready to give up on a novel because I can’t identify with or don’t like the main character, I have to remind myself to examine why I am having that response.  Often, it’s because I see too much of what I don’t like in myself in the character — the best and worst of that character usually cuts too close to my own bone.  Martha behaves as I often do, handing over parts of herself wholesale to friends and family, allowing others to guide her when she most needs to guide herself.  And Eilis is quietly strong and true in a way that I know I can be, but often am not.  Both women challenged my ideas of, and definitions of, love.

And so I have to wonder.  I can claim that I avoid coming-of-age novels because so many of then are formulaic and insipid, which is true.  I can also claim that I am concerned that reading too many will unduly influence my own novel, which is also very true.  But I do have to wonder if the truth is that I stay away from them because I can’t point to a particular time or place in my life where I can say, here, this moment right here, this is when I grew up.

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