A few weeks ago, when I was at the Broward Symphony, I thought about Marge Piercy's novel Summer People. It's about artists, all sorts of artists. One of them, Dinah, is a professional musician. I decided to reread it the next time I needed a book to read. So, I took it with me on our trip to Key West.
Once upon a time, I returned to the novels of Marge Piercy more frequently than I do now--of course, once I returned to any number of novels more frequently. Piercy's novels hold up well, although there are certain markers of the time of the novel. For example, the richest people in the novel have a car phone, an extravagant luxury. One wonders what these characters would make of our cell phones, which after all are much more powerful and portable than those ancient car phones.
I remembered a difference in the novel between the true artists and the craftspersons: carpenters and the one character who designs fabrics. There's a snootiness about the difference between arts and crafts, and as a woman who does both, I get impatient with the distinctions. But that may be more about my weirdness--coming from the mind of the characters in the books, the snootiness made sense.
The thing that I didn't remember about the novel was the way they all manipulated each other. For some characters, it's pretty subtle, so subtle that my younger self didn't pick up on it--and the rich financier character is so obnoxious and obvious in his manipulations that they overshadow the manipulations of everyone else.
But I came away from the novel wondering if any of these characters cared about anyone other than themselves. It disturbed me. It made me wonder if I'm supposed to be disturbed or am I supposed to believe that some of them have changed--more specifically, does Dinah change? Does she really want the choice she made at the end of the book for the reasons she says? These are not the most self-aware characters, and I'm more suspicious of them with this reading; my 48 year old self does not cut them the breaks that my 24 year old self would do.
The novel explored the issues that many of us wrestle with: how do we balance what our creative work needs with what we need to do to bring in money with our deepest desires with our relationships. It was interesting to be finishing that novel as I watched the episode of American Masters that explored the life of Marvin Hamlisch. Marvin Hamlisch seems like a much more likeable artist than the characters in the book.
I didn't always feel this way. It's interesting to see my analysis change through the years.
I did love reading about musicians and sculptors and carpenters. It was fascinating to read about artists on the Cape, as I am trying to carve out an artistic life on a different shore. It was fascinating to read about how Dinah, the main character who's a musician, rejects an academic life.
Come to think of it, that would be another anachronism, or perhaps I should say another sign that the book isn't set in 2013. She gets grants and invitations to play and she can cobble together a life that way. She would have a harder time now. And an academic job would not be forthcoming. That career path is closing down--I suspect it's closed already, with the days of tenure gone before we knew tenure was vanishing.
I loved reading the lush descriptions of the gardening, an interesting counterpoint to our own journey to the botanical gardens at Key West. These characters are much more successful at creating gardens out of sand than we have been.
When I first read this book, a relationship that lasted 10 years seemed very long-lived to me. Now it seems like a blip. These characters do not seem mature and grown up, the way that they did when I first read the book.
Still, it was great to revisit them again and interesting to wonder what I've missed with this read. I want Marge Piercy to write a book that's as honest about aging and relationships and the creative process as this one is about having families and relationships and the creative process.
I've been to her website and been reading blog posts (accessed here), and perhaps she's working on what I need to be reading. Or perhaps that's what I need to be writing. Ah, to be that fearless!
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