Monday, June 25, 2007

A Daughter, a Mother and Her Mother's Married Lover

The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Homes (Viking, 2007)

I have been an admirer of A.M. Homes since I first read her short story collection The Safety of Objects (1990). The stories are odd and mesmerizing, unlike many other things that I had read at that time. Again, I think my partner had a hand in introducing her work to me. He has a talent for finding new unusual authors.

For some reason, I had always pictured her as a acerbic teenager or young adult laying waste to the mediocrity and oddity of suburban life (which perhaps she was at the time) and I was unaware of her history as an adopted child. We are in the midst of an international adoption so I am intrigued and anxious to read about the adopted child's experience.

Amy M. Homes, always, to my mind, brutally honest and forthright as a writer, has written a memoir of her experiences when her biological mother (the mistress in the title of the book) contacted her when Amy was in her early 30s. Amy is alternately alarmed, intrigued, dismayed, captivated and curious about her origins.

Her biological mother Ellen Ballman's story was not a happy one: a 17 year old growing up in the buttoned down southern state of Maryland in the 1950s when she had a relationship with her boss Norman Hecht, a married man in his 30s with a family of his own. The affair lasted seven years.

Despite repeated promises to leave his wife, his schemes to relocate the pregnant Ellen to Florida (she returned a lonely three months later after he failed to join her) and a failed 4 day attempt to live together, the couple parted and Ellen decided to put the baby up for adoption immediately after Amy's birth. Half Jewish herself, she insisted that the baby be adopted by a Jewish family.

She was. By all accounts, she was adopted into a loving, liberal minded, intellectual progressive family that had recently lost a child which created a strange dynamic for Amy. For the much loved little girl she must have felt like the replacement child with so much emotionally invested in her arrival and survival.

Ellen Ballman had made no effort to contact Amy for the the first 30 odd years of the child/woman's life but inspired by "Oprah", she claimed to her daughter, she did so in 1992. Amy's fantasy, which I think is likely a common one for adopted children, that her parents were some sort of powerful, wealthy, majestic people is deflated by her encounters with Ellen and later with her biological father Norman. Adopted or not, don't many people imagine that our "real" parents are royalty of some sort? Something fantastic and wonderful?

Ellen shows up at readings unannounced, completely unnerving the author, calls her incessantly and insists that they meet despite Amy's anxiety about doing so. Amy is overwhelmed when they do eventually meet and begin to have constant contact by telephone (mostly involving Ellen calling her). Ellen is needy, damaged, near completely ruined by her relationship with Norman. She never married, never has another child, drifts from job to job, sometimes encountering legal difficulties, is never settled and offers up the bizarre proposition that Amy adopt her. She is clearly searching for Amy to take care of her, to fill the void after all these years.

But as overwhelming and difficult as this may be, her encounter with her father is more so. At their first meeting, he blithely informs her that while he too is half Jewish, he is not circumcised and is not particularly "Jewish". He meets her only in hotels, never at his home which he still shares with his wife, or else in coffee shops. He never introduces her to his other children except for his eldest son who sometimes accompanied him to visit Ellen when he was a boy in the 1950s. Norman insists on a DNA test to prove that Amy is his daughter, reveals the test to be conclusive then later refuses to share the test with her even when a lawyer requests the documented results on her behalf.

There is a odd and disturbing sexual current running throughout these meetings ... the hotels as meeting places (always at his suggestion), the secrecy required as he instructs her to call him in the car so his wife won't pick up the phone and he refuses to tell the whole family of her existence, his open criticism of her appearance as if he is disappointed that she is not feminine enough and does not dress appropriately for his tastes, Norman's wife's unrelenting anger towards Amy as if she is the mistress. At one point Amy even blurts out that she is not his mistress and that he should stop treating her that way. But truthfully, Amy feels something too for a time, acknowledging her desires, her fantasies about her father. Her almost physical need for him.

Later, after her mother's death in the late 1990s, Amy catalogues the ways in which she failed her mother. She starts to rethink the whole relationship between her parents. She is less judgmental of Ellen and more unforgiving of Norman's role in the affair, his carelessness, selfishness, his lack of responsibility. In the end he disappoints Amy much as he disappointed Ellen with his extreme self-absorption and thoughtlessness.

She admits her class biases, her shame at the uncouth behavior of both of her biological parents and casually acknowledges how vastly superior she feels her adoptive family to be politically, intellectually, emotionally, socially. She mocks her bio parents' inflated sense of superiority which she feels is unjustified, inconsistent with her view of what honorable people are.

These are extremely brave but unhappy sentiments that few of us would care to admit to. But Homes seems to determined to paint a brave face on the whole business by the end of the memoir.

She begins to obsessively research and catalogue the lineage of the four sides of the family: biological mother, biological father, adoptive mother, adoptive father. She discovers fascinating, wonderous things about her families. and other families with similar names. which she stumbles upon. Perhaps this triggers the desire, heretofore dormant, to have a child of her own.

She conceives a child after many attempts to start a family after the age of 40 (a difficult task at the best of times at that age, more difficult when you face the stresses of sorting out one's identity). She ends the memoir with a sort of homage to her daughter Juliet and her adoptive grandmother Jewel Rosenberg as if to say that her poisonous relations with her father will not serve as the last word.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Wishing the Emperor would put his clothes back on ...

I was really looking forward to The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, a tale of upscale New Yorkers pre- and post-911 which spans the months of March 2001 to November 2001.

The Emperor's children are clearly those affluent, liberal, creative and somewhat aimless upper middle class young New Yorkers who inhabit a sort of fantasy pre-911 New York city.

They are producers of documentary films, aspiring writers and intellectuals, magazine editors and fashionably "kept" men. They fumble in their relationships and careers, lose confidence, jump start creative initiatives, unsure of who they are or what they want.

Danielle Minkoff, the documentary film producer, filled with the perpetual underconfidence of an ethnic outsider who struggles to create films of substance. Julius Clarke, sexually adventurous, frivolous, who finally meets the handsome affluent man of his dreams, only to attempt to sabotage the relationship with tawdry sexual encounters. Frederick, a small town boy, intelligent and rootless, who seeks the mentorship of his famous uncle Murray Thwaite, a celebrity, pundit and possible intellectual fraud. Ludovic Seeley, a transplanted Australian, pretentious and arrogant with enough Oedipal rage directed at Murray Thwaite to slay a hundred father/idols. And finally, Marina Thwaite, a beautiful, slightly shallow, possibly talented writer who is writing the improbable The Emperor's Children's Clothes, a history of children's clothing, much to her father's disdain and displeasure.

The characters seem to be a series of not particularly interesting cliches: the insecure Jewish girl; the flamboyant queen; the small town, ambitious nerd; the lovely underconfident WASP; the aggressive outsider set on conquering New York that intrudes upon their world. And there is the self absorbed, pompous "emperor" Murray Thwaite around which all of them revolve like a series of small planets around the sun, and whom Frederick and Ludovic seek to topple from his pedestal for their own private reasons.

The book charts their various enterprises from March to November 2001 and I must say that for almost 300 pages it does hold a sort of certain Seinfeldian sense of being "a show about nothing". What they accomplish during the course of the novel is minimal.

It's not that Messud is not a literate or intelligent writer but for all my initial avid interest in the book, I simply fail to care for, or believe in, the characters. And the magnitude of 911 upon their lives feels false and manufactured.

After pages and pages of "nothingness" characters oddly act against type: Julius' partner David Cohen, an uptight, barely out of the closet financial manager, attacks Julius over an infidelity; sensible, sweet Danielle falls in love with best friend Marina's father Murray; Frederick (also known as Bootie) betrays his revered uncle Murray with a searing Oedipal-fueled attack that he hopes will be published by that other destroyer of idols Ludovic Seeley. These events all lead up to September 11th which is touched on only briefly ... and through the prism of these mostly privileged lives who claim to be touched, even scarred, by the atrocities of the day, but display little of this momentous event in the workings of their everyday lives.

How flat the post 911 world is ... someone has a breakdown of sorts (it is unclear why - because she viewed the carnage from a distance? because her lover abandons her on the day of 911? because she realizes that the relationship is shallow and futile?) and is whisked away from NYC by a parent; another character's marriage is in jeopardy; a third departs Manhattan provoking the mistaken speculation by his family that he is collateral damage in the 911 attacks; an errant husband returns to his spouse who may, or may not suspect his affair but is only relieved to see him home on September 11th, no questions asked.

But I buy none of it ... the breakdown, the partner that suddenly turns surly and rude to his spouse because 911 has scuttered his dreams of conquering the New York media world, the rapid departure of another character to Miami to start anew. It all feels false and ... utterly unmoving.

Even the pretentious literary chapter titles (Musil's "A Man Without Qualities', Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground" and such, which I suspect were inserted to entertain), scream "I am literate!" and grate upon the reader. The on-going struggle that a few of the main characters exhibit regarding whether they are persons like Pierre or Natasha, the main characters of Tolstoy's War and Peace, feel shallow and do not elucidate the characters for me.

Now, I look forward with pleasure to my "next" 911 book, Falling Man, by Don DeLillo.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bury my heart at Satriale’s

Oh my friends, I couldn’t have been more off on my predictions regarding the concluding episode of The Sopranos.

Instead of Tony offing his therapist Jennifer Melfi as I predicted we were left with … what? David Chase, the creator of the show left the ending so open ended that it left many a viewer sputtering and fiddling with the cable or satellite dish in utter bewilderment. Although we did have the satisfaction of seeing Tim Daly's smarmy TV writer meet his end in an earlier episode.

The episode on June 9th ends with the Soprano family (immediate not criminal), Tony, Carmela, Meadow and AJ at the famed Holsten's diner in New Jersey for an evening meal. Every indicator in the previous eight episodes suggested ever more frightening alternatives …

A hinted at Islamic inspired terrorist attack; Phil Leotardo’s crew assassinating Tony et al; AJ fulfilling his pledge to kill himself; Bobby or Christopher (before their deaths) exacting revenge on Tony for his treachery and cruelty; Paulie Walnuts turning against the family like made guy Pussy Bonpensiero before him; a belated last attempt by Uncle Jun to eliminate Tony; Meadow now involved with the son of made guy and the target of some lascivious harassment by another; sister Janice unleashing her barely suppressed sibling rage at Tony as she had with her deservedly dead lover Richie Aprile.

The possibilities were endless and endlessly disturbing.

Instead, tormentingly so, we have the three Soprano family members awaiting Meadow sitting in a diner with suspicious men drifting in periodically and glancing at the threesome. There are hints of the first Godfather ... a gathering over a meal, someone goes into the bathroom (as an unknown man appears to be doing in the scene), next thing you know Michael Corleone comes out blazing and kills Virgil Sollozzo and the corrupt police captain.

We also have Meadow painstakingly trying to parallel park her car as the family waits adding to the tension and fear that she will be eliminated as was the unfortunate Sofia Coppola character before the eyes of her devastated father at the end of Godfather III.

As Meadow enters the diner finally, the screen dissolves as if a plug has literally been pulled. And honestly, I thought I had foolishly cut the episode off too early when I had taped it an hour before.

Not unike the mobophile geeks on currently debating the show and slavishly parsing every move made by every character in every episode in almost 50 blog entries so far, I too have pondered the meaning of that ambiguous ending since I viewed it last Sunday. Those three or four men, all high profile, highly intelligent and accomplished individuals reiterate plot lines, quote dialogue from the show and the Godfather movies like over stimulated teenage boys parsing the latest Star Wars film or action toy (and sound just as geeky doing so too).

Does the episode's abrupt ending signify Tony's death, from his POV, as foreshadowed by Bobby's proclamation in the first episode of the season that "You probably don't even hear it when it happens."? Even in the most optimistic of scenarios Tony will be indicted on the ever looming gun charge. Carm will be virtually abandoned with Tony in jail, Meadow in law school and on the cusp of marriage. Carm will be saddled with the volatile and depressive AJ. Bobby and Christopher are dead, Silvio is in a coma, Carlos likely to testify against Tony; Paulie is reluctant to play the good soldier. Janice will likely lose her step-children to her in-laws with Bobby's death. Uncle Jun is sliding into senile dementia.

The "family", both immediate and criminal, is in shambles.

Reviews have been mixed: from disappointment to accolades regarding the ending. Will we ever know what truly happens to Tony Soprano? Despite Chase's teasing, elusive ending I hope he gives us one more whack at what becomes of il capo di tutti i capi.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Sopratutto, Sopranos

The thing that is absolutely riveting for me about this final season of The Sopranos is the way the series carefully reinforces the idea that the characters who we have grown to love, and fear and puzzle over, are all remaining entirely true to their natures. These men (and they are primarily men) are murderers, extortionists, adulterers, bullies, thieves. In short, gangsters. Each episode this season, which I literally view with trepidation and a feeling of being physically ill, drives home this point.

Tony Soprano, the depressed, sometimes befuddled and anxious Mafia don, still elicits sympathy and a grudging compassion.

With son AJ's attempted suicide, cousin Christopher's untimely accident and death (at Tony's own hands), Dr. Melfi's sudden and humiliating abandonment of Tony, brother-in-law Bobby's assassination, his enemy Phil Leotardo's murderous plot to eliminate the Soprano family and Silvio's near murder, Uncle Junior's lack of funds to support his stay at the asylum and sister Janice's pleas to help out financially, Paulie's increasing unsuitability as a family member, wife Carmela's alternating bouts of maternal anxiety, binge shopping and icy disdain, daughter Meadow's dropping out of med school ... who wouldn't feel compassion for the guy? It seems everything is conspiring to destroy Tony.

Villainous, treacherous Tony ... yes, the plots are so cleverly conceived and the characters so richly drawn that we still feel for Tony above all.

I have asked fellow devotees (each one fanatically committed to the show) how they imagine that it will end in the final episode on June 9th. The gossip has been an on-going theory that Tony will be murdered in the final episode.

But based on the second last episode I have an uneasy feeling that he will not die but that Tony will eliminate someone very close to him: the compassionate but perhaps ineffectual Dr. Melfi as if to reinforce the idea that this is not a "normal" human being who can be "fixed" but a dangerous sociopath whom in the end cannot be trusted or cured despite our best efforts.

I think the series which began with the comic if innovative premise of a gangster seeking therapy will end with the unhappy realization that it was a dangerous and fruitless enterprise.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Money, some old and new

The publication of Hermoine Lee's new biography of Edith Wharton (Chatto & Windus, 2007) which, ahem, will be on my birthday wish list, reminded me of this wonderful writer who still appears to live in the shadow of her friend and writing colleague Henry James.

Edith Newbold Jones, before she became Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937), belonged to an old New York family, so illustrious, so rich, that they were said to be the original Joneses (as in the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”). She was a passionate writer of rare sensitivity and insight into the matters of the heart and the pocket.

A sensitive, introverted girl she was deemed “too intelligent” by the family of her first fiancee and was unceremoniously dumped. She then passed unluckily into the arms of the wealthy Bostonian Edward “Teddy” Wharton in 1885 at the age of 23. The marriage was not a happy one and was likely unconsummated, and she finally divorced him in 1913 due to “his mental condition, his carelessness with money, and his numerous extra-marital affairs”.

Edith Wharton was rich, somewhat snobbish about her prestigious origins and slightly rattled by the morally dubious nouveau riche whom she saw penetrating the old world money of New York. She, who had a great deal of it, skewered those lesser mortals who valued it too much.

How her world had changed with the ascension of modern writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald of whom it was said by the critics had assumed her literary mantle.

He saw her, as have many others readers and writers, as the embodiment of an "enviable conjunction of wealth and social connection, prodigious authorship, critical success and intimate association with the artistic upper crust". She greatly admired Fitzgerald's work and invited him to tea at her home in Saint-Brice-Sous-Fôret in France; he returned the favour by showing up horribly drunk. After an interminable visit which climaxed with a tasteless joke about an American couple in a bordello she noted, more with sadness than surprise, merely that he was "awful" in her diary.

I have only read a handful of her dozens of books but it seems a common theme runs through them: Mrs. Wharton deemed the unbridled desire to acquire wealth as the source of many evils in the early 20th c. society, and, secondly, that the actual possession of money itself brought little happiness. She could honestly testify to both precepts. The most prominent example of both themes is in her depiction of Undine Spragg, the heroine of The Custom of the Country (1913), deemed by some to be her finest novel, and the character of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (1905).

Undine Spragg, married four times to a succession of wealthier and wealthier husbands (redneck entrepreneur Elmer Moffatt, New York blue blood Ralph Marvell, French aristocrat Raymond de Chelles and then Moffatt again - once he became a billionaire), whom Undine managed to discard once the offending spouse(s) got in the way of achieving her materialistic desires.

Author Cynthia Griffen Wolff posits in her 1987 introduction to the book that The Custom of the Country was Wharton's response to the post Civil War nouveau riche who had invaded New York: devoid of values, materialistic, showy (Undine loves beautiful things and sees them as a perfect backdrop for her own beauty). Old money was more ethical, more careful, more principled, Wharton seems to suggest in the novel.

Wharton describes Undine thus: "Success was beauty and romance to her" - by success she means material gain and fame. Neither familial loyalty to parents, young son Paul or ailing second husband Ralph dissuaded her from her path. She held the curious notion that obtaining money was akin to the following of some underground spring: it might momentarily disappear but was sure to resurface soon enough.

But Undine is too crassly drawn, too one dimensional a creature to inspire our passions - even our hatred - as she is too cartoonish to be believed. Beautiful, cruel, shallow, uncultured, grasping - she is the nightmare vision of the nouveau riche who must have horrified Wharton's generation and her forbears. But Undine is never a fully realized character for me. And eventually she is thwarted in her desires, surmising at the very end that she should have been an Ambassador's wife and now never would be with her succession of divorces (count 'em three!).

There is also an almost fatalistic sense in the novel that the American blue bloods had run their course in American society. Capitalism which happily gave way to the robber barons of the 19th c. would no longer accept that true "gentlemen" of aristocratic birth should do precisely nothing in order to retain their place at the top of the American hierarchy of wealth and prestige. Ralph Marvell, with all his refinement and principles, was no match for the aggressive, acquisitive Undine (or either of her two successive husbands) and chose to kill himself when he suffered financial setbacks and he felt that he could no longer fight Undine for custody of their child. Wharton seems to pity his end and the end of his kind but somehow it seems inevitable and she recognizes that.

Lily Bart, the impoverished aristocratic beauty in The House of Mirth, who misses her chance to wed "the right sort" and retain the status that she craves for, seems a type with whom Wharton is more familiar with. Lily is beautifully drawn, as well as beautiful. (Alas, even most female authors, plain or beautiful, are loath to have a plain heroine.)

At 29, Lily is unmarried and appears to be in no hurry to changer her status despite the interest of Lawrence Selden, one of her circle, whom she honestly cares for but who doesn't have enough personal wealth to meet her material requirements which they both charmingly acknowledge. Selden is witty, cerebral, easily Lily's equal but he too knows that he has little to offer her in terms of wealth.

She has expensive and exquisite tastes which her aunt Mrs. Peniston, her sole remaining relation, will not indulge and Lily often spends time with her wealthier friends Judy and Gus Trenor which only encourages an unfortunate and growing interest in gambling. As a beauty with a distinguished if impoverished background, Lily's path crosses that of Simon Rosedale, an industrious and newly wealthy Jew. Here Wharton's ugly prejudices show in his characterization. He is vulgar, unattractive and apparently desirous of obtaining Lily only as a sort of trophy wife. She rebuffs him disdainfully and repeatedly.

Her financial woes lure her into an investment scheme with the untrustworthy Gus Trenor who promises to increase the value of her small savings. This appears to work for a time and Lily relishes the new funds that come her way (via Gus' own financial contributions as he wishes to secure her affections and more) but it comes at a price that she is unwilling to pay.

Shortly afterwards, an unfriendly and jealous rival, fabricates a tale which implies that Lily is promiscuous and she is banished from the wealthy circles that she frequents. Lily is cut adrift by Mrs. Peniston, who is scandalized by the gossip. When the aunt falls ill and dies she leaves Lily a pittance rather than the fortune she was expecting with the proviso that it is only be paid a year from her death. The amount will barely cover her debts to Trenor.

Lily's fortunes crumble even further and she listlessly attempts to save her reputation and her status. How easily she is discarded! She fails at every new enterprise as she unaccustomed to both honest labour as a hatmaker and saving money. Even Simon Rosedale now rejects her as she is seen as soiled goods and has lost her allure for him. Eventually she poisons herself, perhaps purposefully, after ensuring that her debt to Trenor is repaid with her aunt's inheritance. Selden, who still loves her. arrives too late to save her.

It is easy to surmise that Lily is being punished for many things: being too finicky about choosing a suitable husband from her own circle, frittering away her time and modest financial resources with frivolous shallow people, rejecting the poor but sincere Selden, behaving foolishly if not truly scandalously, virtually offering herself up to Rosedale, a social outcast amongst her set whom she despises, in return for financial security once all appears lost.

The tale is melancholy and difficult to read at times - Lily's ruin is so thorough, so cruel - akin to Emma Bovary's fate except that Lily is guilty of really no more than excessive pride and poor judgment. At times, a Victorian streak of melodrama shoots through the novel - Lily's degradation is so complete, so painful to observe.

But Wharton knew her tribe, knew her people and the ruthlessness with which someone was discarded if they broke the unspoken rules of conduct.