Mirabile Does Literary Fiction: Michelle Huneven’s Off Course

old-fashioned woman with computerLately I have been lazy about book-blogging.

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.

Off Course by Michelle HunevenMichelle 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.


4 thoughts on “Mirabile Does Literary Fiction: Michelle Huneven’s Off Course

  1. Hi from France!

    I’m happy you decided to bring back comments. Many times I wonder how to show appreciation for someone’s blog. I find that emails just get lost in the vastness of the internet.. but a comment is more to the point.

    Thank you for blogging about books. I have read several of your suggestions and I’ve enjoyed every single one, the best one was The Interestings.. this book has caused such an impression on me (even though it’s extremely contemporary-America) that it motivated me to write my own book about talent and creativity from a non-type A person.

    Anyway, this is just to let you know that I love your blog and your blogging style. It’s true that you need to feel that you’re writing for someone.. I feel that too with my own blogs, so I thought I’d drop a note and say, I’m reading you!


  2. Luisa, I love The Interestings and am so glad you liked it. How thrilling hat you’re writing a book. I can’t wait to read it! I have tried in vain to inspire anyone in “real life” to read The Interestings, and wouldn’t Wolitzer be happy to think she has inspired a book?

    And what are you doing in France?


  3. I, too, love An Old-Fashioned Girl. And yes, there is a difference between those of us who read Alcott and those who didn’t. (And I adored Off Course–though one then has to wonder what Louisa May would make of it.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s