Thursday, February 4, 2010

Madame Butterfly's Servant

"Deep into some of Madame's secrets I had entered ..."
Villette, Charlotte Bronte

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (Bond Street Books, 2009) 321 pages
I often start a review with the thought that if I had known the topic I might not have picked up this book so it is fortunate (sometimes) that the book club makes choices for me and I am glad that I was compelled to read some of the books. But this book irked me in inumerable ways and hit so many emotional buttons - and not in particularly good ways. Moore has a wonderful reputation and is a skilled and intelligent writer (best known for her short story collection Birds of America) but this story is an odd and improbable tale. There are traces of the operatic tale of Madame Butterfly losing her child, told from the servant Suzuki's acerbic perspective but it never holds together for me.

Tassie Keltjin, a gourmet potato farmer's daughter, is a first year college student living in the fictional town of Troy, Wisconsin who needs job. She gets one as a nanny for a bi-racial child named Emmie adopted by the odd, and oddly paired, Sarah and Edward Brink (first symbolism alert! Brink, as in what Brinks truck - more money than sense? or brink of madness?). They come across as self-absorbed yuppies who don't seem to know how to parent. She owns a high end restaurant called Le Petit Moulin and he is a scientist with a roving eye, always seeking out the most inappropriate object of desire in the nearest vicinity.

Sarah appears to be a kookier, older version of Tassie - two halves of the same coin with an intelligent if odd sense of humour and a hyper-aware, neurotic parenting style. Sarah's objections to Tassie singing "I been working on the railroad" to Emmie because of its "bad" grammar and "possible use of slave labour" in the song leaves Tassie speechless. Alternatively, she leaves no food in the house for the child and informs Tassie that she will have risotto fedexed to her from the restaurant. Probably due to liberal guilt, she blithely states that poor people are entitled to do things others are not, because they are poor and, I guess, so disadvantaged that this is their privilege.

Tassie becomes a confidante and sounding board observing the strange rituals of the Brinks and the odd nature of their relationship. Edward seems completely uninterested in Emmie and Sarah overly obsessed with the idea of being the white parent of a bi-racial child.

Sensing a racist environment in the town, Sarah forms a support group where the mostly white parents of the mostly brown adopted children gather at Sarah and Edward's home and kvetch about the overt and covert racism that they and their children experience. Their complaints and observations range from the obvious to the absurd. But being somewhat familiar with the adoption process I did recognize the truth of some of those complaints. People tend to laud your choice to adopt in terms of doing a brave or wonderful thing for an adopted child almost as if you have taken on some horribly unpleasant task that they could never take on themselves (sometimes they even say explicitly that they could never do so).

And Moore captures the, among other things, weirdness of having perfectly rational people touch your curly or "exotic" hair as they do to Emmie which is certainly something I can relate to. It's as if a black or bi-racial child with white parents is an odd and weird thing that they can scarcely comprehend.

People still seem discomfited by bi-racial families today. As the mother of a half-Asian child I still remember with some humour, mixed with chagrin, being asked by a member of my mothers' group if people thought I was my daughter J's nanny. Really? Here in Toronto, in politically correct, multi-cultural Riverdale - having two parents of different races is still seen as unusual?

I must say that Ms. Moore certainly has a flare for language, expressed in quirky and intriguing ways. She describes a bridesmaid's dress as "fit for a pornographic milk maid" or "what Scarlett O'Hara might have done with a shower curtain, if she were trying to snag a plumber". Strawberries grow "the wise and cheery beards of Santa Claus". Moore is erudite and cultured and clever (she quotes Charlotte Bronte and knows the plots of operas) but the word play grates on you after a hundred pages or so.

A terrible secret is revealed many pages into the book regarding Sarah and Edward's first child Gabriel (refered to as an, ahem, angel) and how he died. The story of Gabriel's demise is unbelievable. I am incredulous that it could have transpired in such a ridiculous manner, even in this fictional setting. I am reluctant to use the word never but in my estimation I cannot imagine two parents behaving in such a reprehensible and improbable manner.

Emmie, their adopted child, is taken away once the secret is revealed. Tassie is let go and returns to her parents in Dellacrosse (oh the symbolism - so many crosses to bear!), the restaurant closes, and, a sad chapter in Tassie's young life ends.

Tassie displays a wonderful, charming manner with Emmie which demonstrates to me that Moore understands and likes children and has some experience with them. But the disturbing backstory about Gabriel suggests that she has no idea how parents view their children and what they would or would not do in a crisis situation. If you have already lost a child in such horrific circumstances, how could you be so cavalier with a second one?

There are enough explicit references to the opera Madame Butterfly that we are meant to see both Sarah (the adopted mother) and Bonnie (the hapless biological mother we meet early in the novel) as Butterfly whose child is taken away from her and Tassie as Suzuki, the faithful servant who witnesses it all but can take no action. Tassie even drives a Suzuki. It's that clever plot maneuvering and word play that kills the story for me.

Two sub-plots also confounded me ... both with a vaguely post-911 feel to them. Tassie becomes smitten with an attractive Islamic student posing as a Brazilian international student at her college. There are vague connotations that he is a jihadist. He simply and ruthlessly disappears from her life with virtually no explanation. His role, figuratively and literally, in the novel is a mystery to me.

The other sub-plot involves the death of Tassie's brother Bob who enlists with the military and is soon killed. Early in the novel he sends an e-mail to Tassie half jokingly asking her to talk him out of military service. She files it away for later reading and never gets to it. She only reads the e-mail after his death. I find this inexplicable. To add to the bizarre nature of this Moore writes a scene where Tassie crawls into the coffin with her brother's partially destroyed corpse (he was blown up in some sort of bombing incident) and crawls out when the casket is being carried to the cemetery. This creepy, improbable scene has no explanation.

It is difficult for me to separate the outraged mother from the disinterested reader here. As my mother said to me once when I expressed maternal alarm at some situation: "Finally, she responds like a mother!" I  know this might not be the optimal response when reading literature but it is the one that lingers here.


Christine said...

I am looking forward to the discussion at book club.

A Lit Chick said...

Would love to hear your take on this book.:)