Carol Anshaw’s Lucky in the Corner (2002) is the kind of domestic novel I read to make sense of modern life. Such domestic fiction is rare these days. Publishing (from my limited perspective) seems to be about the big books rather than the small gems. The Man Booker Prize last year went to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, an 884-page historical novel. The National Book Award? To James McBride’s The Sweet Bird Life, a 400-plus-page historical novel about John Brown. The Pulitzer? Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, a complicated big book set in totalitarian North Korea. Do awards go to domestic fiction anymore? Does anyone write it? Well, of course they do but it doesn’t always get reviewed, as Jennifer Weiner tells us at her blog.
Anshaw’s novel is not only about family, it is also about gay life. And, though I’m sure there are many gay novels, I must admit I haven’t read one in a while.
In this gracefully-written novel, Nora, a lesbian, and her family are at an emotional crossroads: Nora, the administrator of a Continuing Education program at a college, embarks on an illicit affair with Pam, a ceramics student who works as an independent contractor. Nora’s partner, Jeanne, a Berlitz instructor who loves sentimental movies starring Lana Turner, does not suspect Nora of cheating. Nora’s daughter, Fern, a 21-year-old student who lives at home but prefers the company of her actor-and-sometimes-transvestite uncle Harold to that of her mother, realizes from long experience that her mother is planning something.
Anshaw’s sketch of Nora’s desire is hyperrealistic. Nora fantasizes in her office about Pam, and tries to puzzle out how to initiate a relationship without looking like a sexual harasser. Later in the book we learn about Nora’s sexual history: cheating on her husband with women, and before their marriage, secretly having an affair with a female editor at a fashion magazine where she had an internship.
Nora has been secure with Jeanne, and has chatted with Pam only twice, once at orientation, another time in her office.
Since then–nothing. If there’s a next move, Nora is going to have to make it. She sits inert at her desk, but within, she’s a Greek drama in an ancient amphitheater–foible and folly paving the way for tragic consequences. She sat here last Tuesday night, watching this same play of bad judgment and horrible consequence, and ended up slinking home, grateful to Jeanne for her unwitting protection.
Anshaw has a gift for fabricating witty metaphors .
Nora eventually rushes off to Pam’s classroom with a clipboard to pretend she needs to ask her a few questions.
Anshaw is a master of the temporal flashback. The novel starts with the denouement, when Nora wakes up to find a driver has deliberately crashed into her car and totaled it, and from there goes back and forth in time, covering Nora and Fern’s lives from childhood on.
Anshaw also brilliantly portrays Fern. When Fern learns that her bad-girl best friend Tracy has freaked out over care of her sick and colicky baby, Vaughn, Fern and her new boyfriend take Vaughn away for weekends, and then permanently. Nora and Jeanne also love the baby.
Although this last plot twist is unrealistic–how often do whole families embrace the care of someone else’s baby?–Anshaw is an unusually astute writer, her prose is lean, her dialogue pitch-perfect, and her handling of time worthy of Ian McEwan.
And Lucky, the dog, is the most likable character in the book. What is it about dogs in books? I’m not a dog person. I love cats. But the cats in books are seldom portrayed so charmingly.
I very much admired this novel–it gets better as it goes on.
Remember the days when you used to take your own pillow when you traveled?
“The secret of being comfortable on a Greyhound bus is your own pillow,” a friend once told me when I still traveled on Greyhound buses.
I always take a pillow in the car. (Remember, I am a non-driver.)
But you can’t take your pillow on a plane. You can only take two pieces of carry-on luggage, and one of those is not a pillow.
“Ma’am, ma’am–you can’t take a purse and two other bags,” a stewardess told the woman in front of me in line a few months ago.
I can just imagine her saying the same about a pillow.
And can you check your pillow?
I recently stayed in a hotel where there were 12 pillows on the bed, and they were so luxurious that the bed became my desk as well as my bed. There was hardly any reason to get up unless I wanted to go to a museum, or get a bite to eat.
I am contemplating a trip to London and wonder what I’ll do if the hotel room doesn’t have the requisite number of pillows. Which is a dozen.
I’ll probably spend the first day wandering around buying two or five or six pillows.
The Tate Modern can wait.