Monthly Archives: May 2012

Dear Frances Hodgson Burnett,

The Secret Garden

I cannot remember a time when I hadn’t read and loved The Secret Garden, and decades after my mother bought it for me, your book still loomed large in

Impatiens

my consciousness. In my forties and fifties I had a garden, and although it was hardly secret, it always reminded me of the one in your book. Behind our Hoboken row house,  our yard was really more brick-paved patio than garden. But each spring I bought many flats of multicolored impatiens and devoted an entire day to planting them along the back and side borders. Along with the Rose of Sharon trees lining the other side, they created what to this city girl was a charmed circle of blooming color. There, on summer afternoons, I’d retreat to admire my handiwork, think, and read.

When I was in my mid-forties, I began having panic attacks. They followed the illnesses and deaths of my father and my first husband and the mental and physical decline of my mother. Caring for my mom while also raising two abruptly fatherless adolescents and teaching full-time depleted me. Life seemed bleak. One day my therapist told me I was a catastrophizer, a person who looks at a hangnail and foresees an amputated arm. Following that session, I retreated to my garden, seeking the safety of my familiar fenced-in cloister. That afternoon the garden reminded me not of the one you describe so memorably, but of Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, the sad, sour children you created to tend to it. An orphan and a motherless invalid, Mary and Colin are retreating from sheltered dull lives ravaged by loss, neglect, and fear. These two find refuge in your walled Eden where they are restored to physical and mental health. As a lonely only child, I’d identified with them both.

But that day in the garden with my therapist’s pronouncement echoing in my head, I recalled not only the children, but Colin’s father. Now that man was a catastrophizer! This grieving, humpbacked widower took one look at his newborn son and convinced himself that the infant had inherited the hump and was so weak and sickly that he wouldn’t live to reach adulthood. His dire predictions made my conviction that my daughter’s school trip to Greece would end in a plane crash and my son would be mugged on the subway home from school seem quite reasonable. I remembered how, treated like an invalid, Colin becomes one and terrifies himself by imagining his own imminent death. He hasn’t inherited the hump, but he has a catastrophizer’s DNA for sure. Sitting there, I recognized both Cravens as kindred spirits.

Toad in the Garden

Then I reminded myself that Colin is a kid in a kid’s book. Of course he recovers. A little fresh air, sunshine, hard work, and good company are all he needs. And his recovery prompts his father’s. But I was just a few years away from fifty. And my life wasn’t some bucolic British fairytale. My surviving parent wouldn’t recover. My life was an urban disaster and, to prove it, a huge green toad, a refugee from the local sewer system, turned up in my garden. When the local alley cats began to glide along the fence top, the visitor’s prospects seemed as grim as mine.

With the help of neighbors, I rescued the toad. I kept going to the therapist and teaching my students and seeing my kids off at airports and planting impatiens and reading in the garden. My panic attacks became less frequent, even after my mother died six months before I hit fifty. To get through that birthday , I enlisted the help of my kids who, at summer’s end, were actually safe at home. We planned a potluck in the garden and invited everybody we knew, including an interesting man I’d recently met and a new boyfriend my daughter met at her summer job. Contrary to my expectations, it didn’t rain, it wasn’t too hot, people did come, we didn’t run out of food or wine, no one suffered food poisoning or tripped over a protruding brick, and I had a wonderful time turning fifty. Soon afterwards I began to think about writing for publication.

Pot Luck Plenty!

So thank you for writing a book that spoke to me when I was an anxious little girl and then again when I was gob-smacked by midlife losses.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Dear Dame Iris Murdoch,

A Severed Head

You write so well, it’s almost criminal. One of my favorite lines in A Severed Head is on page one when, reflecting on his too-young mistress’s practical nature, Martin Lynch-Gibbons assures the reader, “Only with someone so eminently sensible could I have deceived my wife.” Thank you for A Severed Head, your farcical take on the sexual shenanigans of upper middle class Brits and Americans.

During the early Sixties and before I read A Severed Head, I saw a dramatization of it at a theater in New Haven, CT. Half a century later I remember that production. Every turn of the revolving circular stage revealed a bed occupied by a different twosome from among the play’s five characters! I minored in

Moses with the Ten Commandments

French in college, so I was no stranger to farce. But these highly theatrical couplings ranged from garden variety adultery and homosexual hanky-panky to unthinkable incest. To see people vigorously violating so many of the Commandments was more than liberating. It was hilarious! It was The Sixties! My colleague and I left that Saturday matinee performance guffawing, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book.

Dead White Males

I wasn’t disappointed. Reading A Severed Head was a vacation from the stresses of introducing works by long dead white men to restive high school kids, for you were a live woman at the top of your game. It was a respite from worrying about poverty and segregation. Martin Lynch-Gibbons and his upper middle class cohort live on inherited wealth and feel entitled to do so. It was an escape from cooking, cleaning and being the “Yale wife” of my grad school husband. Antonia Lynch-Gibbons, the only wife in your book, is unencumbered by household drudgery, children, or a job, and so is free to spend her time screwing around. A Severed Head reads a bit like Updike’s Couples if that solemn tract were written by a winking female wordsmith with a British accent high on speed.

But even in this romp of a read, you include a few caveats, especially for women. The “sensible” one has an abortion and attempts suicide while Martin’s wife ages visibly and, so Martin tells us, unattractively. And then there’s Dr. Honor Klein, an anthropology prof and Jewish half-sister to Martin’s American psychiatrist and longtime friend. Martin speaks often of Honor’s “reptilian” eyes, “oily” hair, dark skin, unattractive “perceptively Jewish” features, and of something “animal-like and repellent” in her stare. These descriptions smack of anti-Semitism on your part until I remind myself that these are narrator Martin’s perceptions and Martin is an idiot. He feels entitled to betray, assault, and coerce women to do his bidding without any awareness that these actions are not right or that the pain he knows they cause matters.

In short Martin is a narrator we can’t rely on. I’d been conned by his kind before, and I relished the idea of a storyteller whom the reader can’t trust but whom the writer can

Unreliable Narrator

manipulate, adding layers of meaning and suspense to her novel. I pictured this omnipotent author creating a genie and letting him out of the bottle to do her bidding. I resolved that someday I’d conjure up my own unreliable narrator.

That day was a long time coming. But finally, in The Bones and the Book, Rachel Mazursky and Yetta Solomon constantly question the veracity of the woman whose diary Rachel is translating. And like the cynical Yetta, Rachel also has suspicions about the truth of what other people tell her. Finally, some wary readers may wonder if Rachel herself, a woman who values keeping and preserving written records of what happens, is entirely

Genie out of the Bottle!

trustworthy.

Thank you for a marvelous read and for all your other marvelous novels as well. Yours was a voice I needed to hear and what I heard was you telling me to make up my own genie and turn her loose.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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