Sunday, July 10, 2011

Girls in Trouble, Girls in Danger

I feel like I've spent the last month reading about young women in danger and the trouble they get into.  I read Lisa Scottoline's Save Me, which presented female after female in terrible danger, most of it completely unbelievable.  I scanned the last 100 pages because I couldn't figure out where it was headed, and I wanted to know, but I didn't want to spend much time finding out.

Then I went to Stuart O'Nan's Songs for the Missing.  It tells the story of the family left behind when their 18 year old daughter disappears.  I found the first part of the book more compelling than the last, when the family tries to cope with the reality that they may never know what happened to their missing loved one.

I read Patti Smith's Just Kids, which at first glance doesn't seem like a tale of a girl in danger, but I think it doesn't because she manages to dodge the troubles that could have derailed her life.  In some ways, she's in terrible danger throughout the whole book as she depicts herself as a very young woman navigating the gritty New York scene of the 1970's.  She manages to avoid drug addiction, violence, unwed motherhood, disease, and starving to death (which seems a very real threat at times).  As I reflected on her book and on the interviews I've heard with her, I'm struck by how many people she has lost to those very dangers.

I'm in the middle of reading Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, much more of a plot of girls in various kinds of trouble and danger than I anticipated.  It takes place in the South Florida swamps, and as with many a work of magic realism, it doesn't feel so much a fantasy as something plausible.  We've got one girl dating a ghost and one girl trying to save the family amusement park, a dead mother, a father off to the mainland to take care of some business. 

I put Swamplandia! down to make sure I made it through the book for our next book club meeting, Sarah Waters' Fingersmith.  It's an interesting take on Dickensian England, complete with insane asylums and threatening country estates dedicated to pornography.

With all of these novels, I find myself devouring the first chunk and then losing patience (well, except for Just Kids, which I never wanted to end).  I'm partly zooming through the last part of the other books because I'm anxious to make sure that these girls in trouble will be OK in the end.  With some of the books, like Fingersmith and Swamplandia!, I get annoyed at the plot twists that make me feel a bit jerked around by the narrator and the writer.  Not another double cross!  Not another threat!!  Not another unbelievable plot twist!!!

I didn't feel the same frustration with Mary Biddinger's new chapbook of poems, Saint Monica, even though the themes are the same.  In some ways, I feel like I'm reading both a cautionary tale and a picture of what my life could have been had I met the wrong men or let myself listen to the messages beamed to me by society and popular culture.  In "Saint Monica and the Hate," we see a smart young girl and the ways her society tries to compel her to hide her intelligence, to sublimate it into having the best flowers or the best cobbler.   The collection ends on a somewhat despairing, and familiar, note, with the poem "Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star," where we see Monica wishing she could go in reverse, a wish she has always had.  As a grown up, the wish takes on a bit of bitterness, since going backwards would enable her to avoid the mistakes she's made.

Is it the fact that the narrative arc is told in poem form that made me more patient?  Is it the fact that a chapbook is shorter than a novel, and thus doesn't strain my credulity or patience?  Is it that the character of Monica is more believable?  Is it that I've been reading Mary Biddinger's blog for years and got to see the Saint Monica poems in process?  As long ago as 2008, she was working on these poems and blogging about them (for example, this post, where she contemplates how to organize them into a book).

Hard to say.  But I think I'm ready for a different plot with the next batch of fiction books I pick out.  I realize that it's hard to avoid the character in trouble plot--as my favorite undergraduate English professor pointed out, without conflict, we have no plot, and having a character in trouble guarantees conflict.  But I'd like to avoid the adolescent girl in trouble plotline for the next several books I read.

In the meantime, I'll read through Saint Monica again.  I found myself devouring the first read for plot.  Now I'd like to see what else Biddinger is doing with these poems.  My first read told me that the collection is compelling enough to make it worth braving the girl-in-trouble plotline again.  I wouldn't do that for most writers.  But Biddinger's talent deserves that kind of attention.  And the joy of a chapbook is that I can read it several times, unlike a novel, which I'm lucky to make it through once.

1 comment:

Hannah Stephenson said...

It's interesting---how does gender figure in here? Culturally, we see 16-year-old girls as vulnerable in ways that 16-year-old boys are not (a holdover from Victorian times, maybe, like in Fingersmith!).