A Cult Classic: Plum & Jaggers by Susan Richards Shreve

Plum & Jaggers is a cult classic about comedy, though it is not a comedy. A sibling comedy troupe is born out of family history, in this case the survival of a terrorist attack.  The novel, which begins like a children’s book, morphs into a surreal fable about remoteness and tragedy.   The McWilliams children, Sam, Charlotte, Oliver, and Julia, are on a train to Rome in 1974 when a bomb explodes in the dining car, where their hippie parents are picking up lunch.  The children, especially seven-year-old Sam, the oldest, are  traumatized by the loss of their parents. Sam spends his childhood and much of his adulthood controlling and protecting his siblings.  He begins to write comedy as an adolescent, to entertain his friends at the reform school he is sentenced to for stealing materials to build a bomb shelter. Later,  he is expelled from a Quaker day school for writing plays instead of doing school work.

Before I go further, I must say that this is a very odd book.  Published in 2000 and marketed as an adult novel, it was reissued in 2013 in Nancy Pearl’s excellent Book Lust Rediscoveries series (published by Amazon).  Goodreads readers like it, but The New York Times slammed it:  my guess is that the reviewer didn’t know what it was.  Do I?  The first part, when the children move in with their grandparents, almost reads like a children’s book.  And then it is a distanced, surreal response to terrorism, when they are in their twenties and perform their comedy act, even opening for Second City.  The set is a dining room, with the family sitting around a table with two empty chairs for their absent parents, nicknamed Plum and Jaggers. There is also an unexploded pipe bomb underneath the table.

All the siblings have coping mechanisms, though they seem never to grow up:   Charlotte is an addicted reader, escaping through Anna Karenina; Oliver is the normal, popular guy who graduates from college and has a girlfriend; and Julia, a stubborn, self-willed free spirit, is happy working as a barista and actress, though she wonders why they all have to live together.

As adults, when they move to Chicago and perform at small comedy clubs, they are invited to open for Second City.  Sam asks what they think of their billing.

PLUM & JAGGERS: sibling comedy troupe—3 kids and a dog—Dysfunction meets hilarity. Join the ’90s. Remember your own childhood bliss.

“I think it’s amazing, Sam,” Charlotte said. “Amazing what you’ve done.”

“Thank you, Charlotte,” Sam said, a rare happiness building like fever, a lightness in the fetid summer air that was almost joy. “Joy.” What a lovely word, he thought, like bells. A pure sound undiminished by the thickness of the air. His team. His troupe. Plum & Jaggers on the lips of people as they left the theater.

In many ways, they are always dealing with terrorism: there is a bomb on the Metro, Sam corresponds with a woman who lost her husband and son during a bombing in Israel, and then a stalker threatens their comedy troupe.  And Sam can’t let them go.  Their relationship is so dysfunctional, but I like Sam, as do his siblings.  The comedy grows darker and darker–too dark.

Susan Richards Shreve writes in the preface, titled “To David Sedaris,”  that she was on a train to New York when she got the idea for the novel. But the sibling comedy troupe was inspired by an article she read about David Sedaris’s comedy act with his sister, Amy Sedaris, before he became famous.  In New York she  met with him and chatted to him about comedy, which grew out of “mainly delicious family stories, darkly funny, wicked, and generous. Quotidian life with all its exasperations, pratfalls, and missteps, its small and enormous hurts.”

Although Plum & Jaggers is not my favorite of Shreve’s books–that would be Queen of Hearts, which I wrote about here–I enjoyed it very much.  She is a graceful, thoughtful writer.  And I will read it again, as I do all her books.

Out-of-Print: Queen of Hearts by Susan Richards Shreve

Susan Richards Shreve

I am a bibliomane.  I read new novels, classics, interwar women’s novels, science fiction, biographies, memoirs, and the occasional out-of-print book.   Have you read this,  I ask.  Did you know this tour de force has fallen out of print?

I am sometimes more successful than others in conveying my enthusiasm.  I once recommended Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (NYRB) to a librarian. “This isn’t right for our patrons,” she said.  (Danielle Steel was, though.)  A member of the library book club seconded my request, but it wasn’t right for her, either, I guess.

Recently I reread Susan Richards Shreve’s out-of-print novel, Queen of Hearts. It was even more exquisite than I remembered.

The  award-winning Shreve, the author of literary fiction, historical novels, memoirs, and children’s books, has a multitude of fans.  Nancy Pearl, the famous  librarian and author of Book Lust,  chose Shreve’s quirky novel Plum and Jaggers to be reissued in the Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscoveries series.  Pearl writes in the introduction, “…I’d eagerly await each new novel from Shreve, devour it with joy, and hope the wait for the next one wouldn’t be too long.”

I first read Queen of Hearts in 1987 when an editor gave me a review copy. This lyrical novel, with its intimation of magic realism, completely charmed  me.  I wonder now, looking at the cover, if it fell out of print because it was marketed to  the wrong audience.

Anyway, here is my 1987 review of  Queen of Hearts.  And I hope you will enjoy it.

Queen of Hearts, by Susan Richards Shreve.

In The Arabian Nights, cunning Scheherazade tells a thousand and one magical tales that divert a bloodthirsty sultan’s murderous intentions.

If the legendary Scheherazade were cast as the heroine of a contemporary novel, she might be a lot like Francesca Woodbine, the pop singer with second sight who stars in Susan Richards Shreve’s enchanting novel.

Francesca is no ordinary pop singer. It takes an artist as intuitive as she to penetrate “the secret lives of ordinary people.” Thwarted composers, teenage Don Juans, would-be snake charmers, and lion tamers range the streets of her seemingly humdrum hometown in the guise of housewives, sexy boys, harmless booksellers, and cat lovers. In her songs, Francesca unveils their hidden passions and crimes.

Like her fortuneteller grandmother, Francesca is reported to have second sight, yet her insights are equally rooted in her own violent secrets. Raped at 14, she lived for years “like a nun.” Later, she murdered her fiance when she caught him philandering with a naked woman “in a swan hat.”

If this sounds a bit wild, well, it is–in the lush tradition of Toni Morrison and Alice Hoffman. Shreve’s finely tuned visual imagination meshes with her sense of the absurd to create a story as haunting as the songs of her protagonist.

At one point, Francesca’s mother, who longs to compose music, hallucinates “that mockingbirds with yellow breasts were filling her hospital room with song.” And in an erotic description of one of Francesca’s suitors, Hendrik is said to have “hair so black, it seemed wet.”

In an especially humorous passage, Francesca insists that her friend Maud has more on her mind than just boys. According to Francesca, even when Maud sleeps with boys, “she’s thinking about the theory of relativity or whether man is born innocent or whether there’s such a thing as salvation…. She’s very smart.”

When Francesca starts to tell the town’s stories in song, the citizens of Bethany, Massachusetts, get the jitters. How can she possibly know about the violent rape of gentle Billy Naylor? What is the origin of her Top 40 hit “Betrayal”? Recognizing the universality of human experience, Francesca wisely tells them, “Every woman knows about betrayal, but the story isn’t personal.”

And that’s the secret of the charm of Queen of Hearts. Shreve addresses our most heartfelt modern concerns in the impersonal form of a classy adult fairy tale. Do women really want to marry? Francesca and Maud dream of husbands and adventure in Paris. Maud, aware that Francesca’s illegitimate son is teased for not having a father, opts for an abortion when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock.

Although Francesca’s seductive music tames the violence in most men, she eventually falls in love with the only truly dangerous man in Bethany. From a literary point of view, the attraction between two unpunished murderers is apt. The hair-raising suspense, however, made this reviewer extremely nervous.

Luminous writing, eroticism, and suspense make this novel a heady treat. Read this book.

A Homage to the TBR

Someone else’s reading journal.

I keep a book journal, but do not have a TBR.  I buy books, I put them on shelves, I take them off shelves, I find I am not in the mood, I put them back for a year or ten years, I take them off the shelves again, and eventually I read them. Are people with TBRs more organized?  When I do plan, the dates are flexible.  Last spring I meant to reread Daniel Deronda, but didn’t get around to it till  fall.  Did it matter?  Not at all.  And did I hurry through 800 pages?  I did not.  George Eliot’s prose is buoyant and rich in texture, lush and leisurely.  Festina lente (“Hurry slowly”),as the Roman proverb says.

Not everyone shares my serendipitous style of selection, though. We don’t all have to be the same:  I very much like other people’s TBRs!  And so this post is a homage to pictures of  bloggers’ TBRs, which I always love, and to the “vloggers” at Booktube who show books to the camera and say they plan to read them. (Now that is a bit weird!)  The photo above is of what passes for my TBR (though I am committed to reading other books currently, so this TBR is in flux).  I have started some of these, so I can decide which to finish, and which to reject.

1.  Gail Honeymoon’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.  Everybody has read this except me, yes?  I have read 50 pages, and it is well-written.  Initially I thought it might be like Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, only Eleanor Oliphant is a 30ish eccentric heroine with a dead-end job in an office, not an elderly woman about to retire. But Honeymoon’s novel is both lighter and more issue-oriented:   The victim of some kind of abuse, Eleanor has scars all over her face but says she “is completely fine” without having any friends. And then, at  a concert, she is smitten by a musician, and buys a computer to stalk him online.  She plans to meet and seduce him and even gets a bikini wax.  But her most likely friend?  The nice, dull guy from the IT department.

I’m of two minds about this:   I do feel I read a very similar American novel in 2015 or 2016.  I actually blogged about it, but don’t remember the title.  It wasn’t very good:   the story of a obese woman who is completely alone until a kind woman befriends her–and naturally she blooms.  Gail Honeymoon’s novel is much more sophisticated.  I am not very intrigued by the story, though.

2.  Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun.  This is a Christmas present from a friend with very good taste.   And I loved Stewart’s nonfiction book about earthworms, The Earth Moved.  This mystery, set in 1914,  is based on the real-life Kopp sisters: Constance Kopp became of the nation’s first female sheriffs, after the sisters survived a shoot-out at their farm.  This is another of those books everyone loves, and  the opening pages are addictive.  AND SO IT WILL BE READ.

3.  Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I read an article in The Guardian about publishers’ favorite books of the year:  Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury recommended Conversations with Friends.  I’ve read 62 pages of this beautifully-written little book, and it slightly reminds me of Barbara Trapido’s comic novels, only it’s aimed at Millennials and written by a Millennial.  The narrator, Frances, a poet who performs poetry at bars with her best friend Bobbi, develops a tangled relationship with a married actor, the husband of a woman who is writing a profile about Frances and Bobbi.   I’m of two minds about this:  I’m not its target audience, and I do not relate to the characters.  But  I will PROBABLY finish it because it’s blessedly short.

4.  Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke It’s a Golden Age Detective Story, and I love Allingham.  It is not her best but very exciting!  I’m a fan of her hero Albert Campion, so I’ll finish it.

5.  Browsings, by Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post, is a collection of essays which he wrote originally for the homepage at The American Scholar. He is obsessed with collecting books, carries a notebook on walks, and tells us which notebooks he prefers (not Moleskines), lists titles of books about books, and guides browsers at a famous book sale at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart to learn which books are collectible and valuable.   Yes, I will finish this book, and it would make a great Christmas gift.

6.  Susan Richards Shreve’s Queen of Hearts.  I absolutely loved this well-written novel when I read it in the ’80s, and am loving it again.  It’s a moving tale with a hint of magic realism, set in a small town in Massachusetts.  The heroine is beautiful, kind, and has second sight, but on the eve of her wedding, an unforeseen incident occurs: she finds her fiance with another woman, and she kills him. What will she do with this secret?   The very talented Susan Richard Shreves is one of my favorite novelists. She bridges the gap between literary and popular fiction, and this is thoroughly enjoyable.

So, do you have a TBR?  Do you plan your readign?  Or do you read as you go? What’s on your TBR?   Let me know!

A Lovely Summer Read: Susan Richards Shreve’s Plum & Jaggers

Plum & Jaggers Susan Richards ShreveI am not the only reader to discover the Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscoveries series, published by Amazon.

But you know what?  I’ve read remarkably little about this series at blogs.

If you love reprints of great out-of-print novels, among them Virago and NYRB, you’ll want to check out this series of reissued forgotten novels.  Each is selected by Nancy Pearl, an award-winning librarian and writer, and each was originally published between 1960 and 2000.

Susan Richards Shreve is one of my favorite writers, but somehow I missed out in 2000 on  Plum & Jaggers, her fascinating novel about four children whose lives are shattered by terrorism.

Shreve is one of those wonderful writers whose style is deceptively simple.  It never gets in the way of her spellbinding storytelling.  Shreve, the co-chair of the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and  founder of the MFA program at George Mason University, has written both adult novels and children’s novels.  And because of her expertise at exploring both children’s and adults’ points of view, she writes a pitch-perfect tragicomedy about this disturbed  family.

Shreve unsentimentally yet movingly portrays the offbeat McWilliams children.  On a train to Rome in 1974, their parents,  hippie former Peace Corps volunteers and world travelers, leave Sam, Charlotte, Oliver, and Julia to go to the dining car to fetch lunch. A bomb goes off, and they are instantly killed.  The children survive, but, as you can imagine, there are severe psychological consequences.  Sam, age 7, the oldest, feels responsible for the others, wanting to keep them together and even insisting they live and work together e as adults.    He forms a comedy troupe called Plum & Jaggers after their parents’ nicknames.   As you can imagine, it is dark comedy.  And for a while it is a show on NBC.

The novel begins:

Sam McWilliams was the only member of Plum & Jaggers who remembered the afternoon of June 11 when the first two cars of the Expresso from Milan to Rome explode, killing everyone on board those cars except for a four-year-old French boy and a conductor.  Sam remembered exactly.  He was seven years old, eight in November.  Julia was too young for memory, sleeping in Sam’s arms, where their mother had put her when they left.

After the bomb goes off, Charlotte falls asleep, “a habit she would retain in emergencies for the rest of her life,” and Oliver crawls under the seat upside down.

Susan Richards Shreve

Susan Richards Shreve

The novel follows their lives from the ’70s through the ’90s. At first they live in Michigan with their beloved grandparents, until Sam is falsely accused of beating up a boy.  Then the family moves to Washington, D.C., ostensibly so Grandfather can pursue his freelance art career at the Smithsonian, but really to escape Sam’s bad reputatuon.  But trouble follows Sam: he is caught stealing a pipe and flashlight from a hardware store: he is building a bomb shelter under the garage.  Because of his previous record in Grand Rapids, Sam is put into a juvenile detention center.  Oddly enough, he has an excellent effect on the other boys.  He writes plays based on the boys’ family lives, and they discover their creative power by acting them out.

The younger McWilliams children are on the surface a little less troubled:  Charlotte can always escape into a book, Oliver is practical and also artistic, and Julia refuses to go to school (her grandmother homeschools her).

Sam, obsessed with the history of terrorism, begins to write dark comedies about their family.  Gradually they develop a following, and NBC picks up the show.   The set is always a dining room with two empty chairs at either end of the table for their missing parents and an unexploded bomb under the table.

But there is a price for fame, and Julia attracts a stalker.  When they gather at a small cafe, it is Olivier who points out that her extreme roles in the troupe are “a magnet for crazy people.”  Ironically, they are dealing with their family situation so honestly that it can attract negative attention.

“I worry about the line of safety we’re crossing,” Charlotte said.

Sam looked up from his notebooks.  “That’s the line we cross,” he said.  “That’s who we are.”

“We have to be careful, though,” Oliver said.  “This is television, not a small theater audience who will have come to see us because we’re Plum & Jaggers.”

“But we’ve hit a funny bone.”  Julia leaned against Oliver.  “I don’t think we should change the show completely.”

“We’re not changing it at all,” Sam said, getting up and putting on his coat.  “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

This small, perfect book actually gave me a chill of recognition, as though I perfectly understood the McWilliams family. I love these characters, and Shreve knows exactly when to distance us from them.  (She doesn’t want us to be a crying mess throughout the book.)   And so I will be searching for more of Shreve’s books.  And I will be rereading Plum & Jaggers  soonI’ve got the urge to reread it now, but have more or less promised to wait till next spring.  I can’t be too indulgent about reading the books I love over and over…