An Adulterer, a Gang Member, a Dystopian Teacher: 3 Novels of American Womanhood
By Lee Matalone
194 pp. HarperPerennial/HarperCollins. Paper, $15.99.
“Home making” is a phrase so fraught with political and social overtones that before opening this book I went to Google for a sterile definition: “The creation and management of a home, especially as a pleasant place in which to live.” This two-part framework is helpful. While Matalone’s “Home Making” is partially concerned with the aesthetics and processes of domestic labor, it’s that last part, that magic by which a woman — for this is nearly always women’s work, no? — transforms a physical structure into a place of comfort and safety, that is the subject of this heady and somber debut.
The architecture of the story is solid. A young freelancer named Chloe struggles to create and manage (so to speak!) a new home, acquired for her by her husband, from whom she is separated after her brief affair with another man. Apart from this, the novel features less of a plot than a collection of characters, all of whom bear their own secrets and hurts. There’s Chloe’s ob-gyn mother, Cybil; Beau, Chloe’s nurturing, bisexual best friend who assists her domestic efforts; her husband, Pat, who, having asked her to move out, suffers through his cancer in isolation: “From his private island, our home, he would watch the disease come closer and closer, sitting solo on the shore as the ship puttered into port.” Each character has a story to tell, though sometimes these are lost in Matalone’s superseding mission: to catalog all the ways in which a house can function as a metaphor.
At times, Chloe’s house is a refuge; at others, a burden. Those closest to her record their interpretations; most notably, Cybil, a biracial immigrant, teaches Chloe “that she, and by extension, me, did not belong to some Waspy vision of America. Our house could never be surrounded by a white picket fence. … That experience was not for us.” And then there are the quotes (Le Corbusier: “A house is a machine for living in”) that dot the novel like philosophical bric-a-brac. I was reminded of Heidi Julavits’s lament about the mechanical obligations of fiction: “When writing novels I cannot seem to escape the trap of a plot.” Though Matalone sometimes struggles to balance the theoretical with good storytelling, it’s nevertheless exciting to see her wrestle so artfully with her ideas.
By Melissa Anne Peterson
246 pp. Counterpoint. Paper, $16.95.
Some environments are tailor-made for crime fiction, like James Ellroy’s noirish rendering of Los Angeles’s seedy underbelly, or that gossipy, wealthy suburb in “Big Little Lies.” The sparsely populated hills of rural western Washington State are another such setting. As I read “Vera Violet,” Peterson’s ambitious yet clunky debut, which largely takes place in one of these Pacific Northwest logging towns, I couldn’t help wondering whether the book would have been more successful had its thematic purview been limited to this backdrop alone.
Perhaps admirably, as this thriller builds toward its blood-soaked climax, it also tries to be much more: a coming-of-age story, a dissection of race and class, a lyrical rendering of love and violence. Now a young adult, Vera grew up on a street called Cota, where families live in trailers and the threat of “rib-cracking methodical violence” hangs in the air like a fog. As a teenager, she fell in with a ragtag but mostly sympathetic gang whose complicated loyalties bring to mind the youths of an S. E. Hinton novel. When some of them are sucked into the drug trade and violence ensues, Vera flees to St. Louis, where she takes a teaching job at a local public school, a white woman in a mostly black neighborhood.
From the start, Vera’s attempts to make her black students feel seen — as she never was — are clumsy. There are cringeworthy passages about skin (she describes one co-worker as “the color of crude oil” before noting how he “brimmed with history”), and hair (a student named Diamond’s “was fried and angry”; “it split from her head in squirming strands”). It’s obvious that the same vortex of poverty, drugs and joblessness that ensnared her hometown also plagues this tough corner of the Midwest. But Peterson takes pains to draw these parallels, at a high cost: relegating the narrative on Cota Street — which is both a tragic love story and a gritty drama — to the background.
THE ILLNESS LESSON
By Clare Beams
271 pp. Doubleday. $26.95.
Much of the feminist dystopian fiction published over the last few years takes place in the future, in worlds uncomfortably similar to our own. “The Illness Lesson,” however, proves that books can fit squarely within that genre even when set in the past — in this case, small-town Massachusetts in 1871. Think “City Upon a Hill” ideals and “The Scarlet Letter”-style misogyny and you’ll have a pretty good idea of this sly debut novel, which scarily hints that, since the 19th century, perhaps not a whole lot has changed.
Samuel Hood is an idealistic public intellectual whose influence has seen better days. But no matter; when the story opens, he is concocting his most ambitious scheme yet: the Trilling Heart School for Girls, led by himself with the help of his daughter, Caroline, and his loyal-as-a-labrador disciple David. “Our school will be a pursuit of the divine in the human,” Samuel boasts (and here, one can’t resist thinking of the lofty yet naïve promises made by capitalists funding today’s charter schools). Soon enough, eight young women are on the roll.
It isn’t long before the girls begin to do exactly what they’ve been taught — to question, to be skeptical; in short, to use their brains. Led by Eliza, the cleverest (and therefore most troublesome) student, the girls are empowered with a newfound sense of agency that quickly puts them at odds with Samuel’s dogmatic spirit and mission for the school. The tension escalates when the girls begin to fall mysteriously ill, but are told they aren’t ill at all.
Then there is that flock of “disastrous-bright” red birds that shows up, inexplicably, one day, injecting an element of Hitchcockian surrealism into a story that becomes more disturbing by the page. There’s plenty to mull over between the puzzling fowl, the classroom dynamics and our complicated protagonist’s eerie ability to better intuit how to police her young female charges than Samuel can. Best of all is Beams’s tone: ironic and arch when relaying the spirited optimism of Samuel’s precious experiments, urgent and sinister when depicting their nightmarish outcomes. Astoundingly original, this impressive debut belongs on the shelf with your Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler collections.