Perhaps that is because I take books seriously. And perhaps it is because I need to pretend I am writing for somebody. I might be Rosalind Russell writing for her ex-husband/editor Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. It takes less time to jot down an essay about bicycling, or a pop critique of Dancing with the Stars, than to scrawl even a short blog entry about books.
Some of us read books, others write them. When a friend was dying of cancer, bitter and in such pain that she would no longer receive her friends, she said on the phone that her whole life had been about reading.
“Do you think that’s good enough?”
Yes, I do.
She had regrets.
But perhaps being a reader is as important as being a writer. If a writer’s work is not loved and kept in print, the pages soon disappear.
And here is a short digression. Our favorite book was Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl. We once had an informal two-person book group discussion of it. Both of us identified with Polly, the country mouse who preferred simplicity to urban fashion, and who grew up to be an impoverished music teacher; we preferred her to Jo in Little Women, whom we loved, but…were we really tomboys? And we were sure that reading Alcott had made us better people. Alcott’s novels are about making good moral choices. Honestly, there is a difference between those who read Alcott and those who don’t. (Can the same be said of today’s Harry Potter fans?)
This is a catch-up piece, dedicated to my friend. “Do it,” she would have said. Oh, and she would have had her own book blog, too.
Michelle Huneven’s Off Course, set in the 1980s, is a literary novel about a woman who cannot finish her dissertation. Forget the fact that I am the kind of woman who finishes everything; I completely identify with Cressida Hartley.
Cressida Hartley moved up to her parents’ mountain cabin to finish her dissertation. She would not become one of the aging lurkers around the Econ Department who hoped for sections of Intro to teach while the tenure track shimmered eternally on the far side of two hundred pages.”
A half-tame bear periodically visits the cabins. Cress has to clean paw marks off the windows. Nature is terrifying and yet domestic. The episodes with the bear, and, later, with a bear rug which molds in the trunk of Cress’s car
, reminds us that there is true wildness in the wilderness. Not even the bear rug is manageable.
Huneven’s writing is pitch-perfect: few novelists write such graceful, unassuming, spare prose. And it is a quieter experience to read about the ’80s; I appreciated the time off from the 21st century. Of course Cressida is distracted, but not by email, Facebook, or cell phones. No, she is distracted by sex. (We all were in the ’80s.) She has a short relationship first with Jakey, the lodge owner. After he dumps her, she has a long-term relationship with Quinn, a married carpenter, a semi-literate mountain man. He asks her to marry him on the phone, and says he will divorce his wife; it is then that she falls in love with him.
Never trust a married man. (Better: don’t have a relationship with him.)
Cressida supports the sexual revolution, but some of her friends desert her because of her adultery. This surprises her. And we do understand their harsh judgment of Cress: she is irresponsible at times.
But near the beginning of the novel, she wonders,
Wasn’t there romance that flowered differently, that didn’t morph right into marriage, pregnancy, childrearing, and monogamy for its own sake? What was the sexual revolution for, if not to allow for more varied experiences, a wider range of happiness? Cress was in no hurry to re-create family life–at least as she knew it.
The years pass, and she works as a waitress, always waiting for Quinn, who is sometimes there for her, other times with his wife. Eventually Cress realizses nothing is going to happen and returns to writing. .
This is a very realistic novel, beautifully-written, and fast-paced. Yes, it makes my Best Books of 2014 sidebar.