Monday, July 30, 2012

Cathi Hanauer’s Gone

I read this book because I needed a summer beachy read and saw that Hanauer was the editor of the collection The Bitch in the House. Knowing she was a feminist, I hoped that this would be a light book that also wouldn’t make my reading stop short with some moment of feminist outrage.

It was all right but not nearly as great as it could have been. Boy, does it ever capture something about the zeitgeist, though—both of my own life right now and, as I understand it, of a big sliver of lives of people in their 40s. So, on balance, I am glad I read it to the end. Gone tells the story of Eve Adams (that name! So unsubtle—it in itself almost made me stop), a nutritionist, and her husband, Eric, a sculptor. When the novel starts, Eric has run off with the babysitter. I can see why.

Eve is my worst version of myself: wound way too tight, working way too hard, primarily responsible for the home, food prep, and children, she is also having a great moment in her career: things are really taking off for her. Eric, by contrast, is struggling. Uninspired, he hasn’t completed—or sold—a sculpture in a long time and is wondering if he has it in him to ever create art again. (Now, since I’m identifying, let me clarify and say that this—the dry spell or the running off with the babysitter part—is emphatically not a parallel to my beloved’s life.) There’s no room for Eric in their lives at home and he’s frustrated with his career. They need a marriage reset. It’s a great and interesting problem and the unfolding of the novel is interesting—just the right combination of surprising and predictable to make it a reasonable read. And, having spent time this year renegotiating some of the balances in our marriage now that I’m (still) working too hard but that our youngest is in school and the demands of parenting have changed, too, I was interested in their problems.

But I was disappointed to see Northampton, Mass. given a fake name: after all the pleasures of recognition in Goodbye, Columbus, I felt the lack in Gone (which I read first) all the more keenly: why not name the town where the poor, obese white client lives? The juxtaposition of poverty with the appealing, fancy, yoga-and-tolerance filled communities of the Happy Valley are one of the most interesting things about that region.

More than that, again and I again I found sentences that I wanted tighter and assumptions that I wanted looser. Too often characters are identified by their census categories and shown to be lovable for conforming to what we expect of the black teen mom, the plump chatty Jewish lady, the hippie white girl in the coffee shop. It was never offensive, but it felt lazy and unimaginative. When Eve plays her “game” of trying to see if she can find twenty people in the food court who do not need to lose twenty pounds, I hated her. Listen, Eve, I wanted to scream, stop being so judgy!

Still, as a fictional counterpart to those lifestyle pieces about families where the wife outearns the husband, Gone held my interest even as it made me feel like I’d be boxed into one of Eve’s narrow categories: just another tired mommy in the food court who could stand to lose a few pounds.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Goodbye, Columbus; Hello, Newark

When we moved from Jersey City out to South Orange not quite two years ago, my friend Lenny, who’d been in nearby Millburn for a while, took me under his wing, driving me around, taking me to lunch in various spots around Essex County.

We were talking about Short Hills and he said, in passing, that of course I’d read Goodbye, Columbus. But I hadn’t. I didn’t know it and didn’t know that it was all about a version of the very move we had just made, for it’s the tale of Neil Krugman, a young worker in the Newark Public Library, and his love affair with Brenda Patimkin of Short Hills.

It’s a wonderful story about a summer romance across class barriers—funny and sharp and sweet. And there is a great, jolly pleasure in reading the real names of the towns that I pass through every day on my commute in to the city—to listen to Neil look at the Lackawanna Train—which then went into Hoboken but now is my train into Penn Station—and imagine the commuters from Maplewood and the Oranges, whizzing through Newark on their way to New York.

Philip Roth published Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and so I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but if you’ve never read it or haven’t read it in a while, let me tell you, this novella is a great little summertime read.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Indeed, if we want to describe a summer evening, the way to do it is to set people talking in a room with their backs to the window, and then, as they talk about something else, let someone half turn her head and say, A fine evening’ (Woolf E3 239).