How a Woman Becomes a Lake – Celona

Ah! and when the hour-glass has run out, the hour-glass of temporality, when the worldly tumult is silenced and the restless or unavailing urgency comes to an end, when all about you is still as it is in eternity…

Soren Kirkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Photo Credit: Penguin Random House Canada

Jia Tolentino recently described, in a 2018 New Yorker essay, a peculiar form of longing, a longing deeply pertinent to our times. Recalling recent political decisions in the United States and other depressing news items, she writes, “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt lake-like–cool and still.” The desire to feel not only a stillness, often associated with trendy mindfulness techniques, but also a sense of detachment, a separation from one’s own nature and the accompanying social conditions, carries with it a particularly cynical undertone.

Invoking a myth popularized in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tolentino reflects on the emotional state of the pursued woman, the dominated woman. How peaceful, then (and this is where the cynicism shows through), to be like Arethusa. To be still, to turn into a cool spring, to rest. Of course, as Tolentino reminds us, Arethusa’s pursuer ultimately transforms himself into a river, penetrating Arethusa, despite her shapeshifting.

This essay, from which Marjorie Celona derived the title of her forthcoming novel, carries with it a subtle but important significance.

In the novel, Vera, the character missing under suspicious circumstances, is exceedingly productive, with “powersuits,” a luxury car, an enviable and predictable daily routine. Her job as a film professor at a local university is, on the surface, a marker of success and status. At one point, she narrates a standard meeting with “a flushed-faced eighteen-year-old” in her office: “So often she wanted to take her students by the shoulders and shout: Do you have any idea how hard I worked to get where I am?” she recalls, emphasizing that she “dulled the feeling” with her perfectly choreographed life.

Vera has a sign in her office saying, “Work harder than everyone else, but never feel like you’re working.” And isn’t this the epitome of a 21st-century woman’s predicament? Work harder, but also be the perfect wife, mother, friend. It’s a trap, in a sense, and Vera has succumbed. Wouldn’t it be a relief, then, to simply become “still”.

The shocking undertone of this novel is the bubbling up of violence, the allusions to suicide, the abuse of the most vulnerable among us. An underlying question of this novel seems to be, what happens to the vulnerable when they are suddenly in a position to inflict violence?

The readabilty and captivating qualities of this novel come from its frame as a crime novel feel. While the publisher has chosen not to categorized it as such (rather, a “literary novel with the pull and pace of a thriller“), Celona’s text has qualities of the very best crime fiction. First, a preoccupation with landscape and with the idea of place pushes the novel to demonstrate how tragedy is informed and ultimately overwhelmed by the surrounding landscape. Secondly, a focus on the deeply human flaws of the characters emphasizes the particular moral considerations and confusions of the individual investigating the crime at hand.

How a Woman Becomes a Lake benefits from both of these qualities, but Celona goes much further to show how these characteristics can be paired seamlessly and productively with an emphasis on literary excellence.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Marjorie Celona

Fiction – Penguin Random House Canada

Publication date: 3 March 2020

Devotion – Stevens

With Devotion, Madeline Stevens joins the ranks of millennial women whose recent novels describe their heroines living in toxic states of body and mind in New York City (think My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Severance, Normal People, etc.). Most of these novels comment successfully on notions of privilege and success, which these women crave.

Why do we like reading about the millennial woman who has questionable actions and morals, questionable self care, questionable relationships, and questionable attitudes towards privilege and self? Why are these novels so popular in this particular moment? Perhaps they are realistic in their portrayals for the most part, which, if not a depressing fact is certainly a telling one.

These novelists in any case should be applauded for their honesty and wit, for their unapologetic ability to describe the body hair, the embarrassing sexual experiences, the misuse/abuse of substances, and desires that often come with being a 21st-century woman.

Stevens develops this popular new story line into an initially plausible account of a young woman finding a job as a nanny for a wealthy family. She’s literally eating nothing at the point she accepts the job, so she is in really no position to reflect on whether or not she truly wants the job, whether she can even be a good caregiver to a toddler (she fakes her resume to get her foot in the door).

As in most of these novels, the selfishness and self-absorption of the protagonist is just a side note, and the plots of these recent stories differ radically. Devotion reflects the life of the nanny and relationship towards the employer. Exposing the relationship between the ultra privileged and the… ? Well, what do you call it? The lesser privileged?

Stevens, in her novel, seems to imply that Ella is underprivileged in many ways, that her life could have been more successful, had she had the opportunities granted to her employer in early life. In reality, she is from a (mostly white) average rural town in the Pacific Northwest, unremarkable for significant crime or poverty, and despite some unfortunate conflict between her parents and eventual abandonment by her mother, she has a caring father and a home to which to return, should she choose. (Her childhood friends have all moved to other small rural towns, she tells us, happily married with children, living simple lives). We can see that starving in New York City, sleeping with a stranger for food, is truly not her only option.

At one point, upon seeing her employer return from yet another doctor’s appointment, Ella reports that she grew up “in a family without health insurance,” so she received medical attention, “only if I was very sick.” This is certainly not the most comfortable experience, but it is more than many can say about their upbringing. Does her health suffer to this day because of her lack of frivolous medical visits? Not that we can tell. Further, would she really have become a successful (and also wealthy and beautiful) writer should she have gone to a nicer school, or summered in the Hamptons, had a nanny, or had a doting family physician. Likely not.

As a result, the initially promising moments where Stevens reflects on privilege are ultimately cliche and have no real significance behind them. A surreal visit to the Hamptons at the climax seals the fate of this promising theme in her novel.

The novelist in this genre has the chance to present either a provoking discussion about the subjectivity of privileged experience, or exemplify how a particular generation, including, possibly, the author herself, has entirely lost sight of what it means to be underprivileged.

Stevens’s descriptions of how Ella becomes consumed by her employers’ family are engrossing and emotionally captivating. At one point, losing track of the child, she catches herself thinking (“where’s my baby where’s my baby where’s my baby”). The lines and personal boundaries between the employer and the employed become increasingly blurred. Ella does not actually care about her small charge, however. She is more interested in inserting herself into the lives of this family. She will happily become dangerously intoxicated at night, even when it is clear that she is the primary caregiver for the evening.

Reviews of the novel so far have tended to focus on the book’s “thriller” aspects, one going so far as to claim that descriptions of the salacious events (affairs, theft, etc.) elevate “the mundane days of a nanny.” Really, the strength of this book is located precisely in those mundane days. Had Stevens forgone the temptation of domestic thriller in favor of her remarkably skillful descriptions of the nanny life (based on her own experiences), this novel would have benefited greatly.

What are her motivations in her obsession with this family? Any young woman who has left her dilapidated apartment in the morning, making the trek to a nice townhouse or mansion in the city, using her assigned key to open the door into a world of wealth and beauty and apparent freedom, can tell you the unconscious wave of desire that takes over. For stability, for wealth, to be the mother who hires a nanny only to focus on herself for the whole day.

In this way, the mostly-privileged white female in her 20s working as domestic help is a particularly ripe microcosm on which to focus when considering the millennial American woman.

Devotion by Madeline Stevens

Fiction – Harper Collins Publishers – 2019

The Need – Phillips

It was a third-year university course in metaphysics that introduced me to the theory of possible worlds. Immediately I was absorbed by the storytelling potential of this concept. Books and films which can effectively incorporate a parallel universe into their plots seem to persistently captivate audiences. A recent Netflix show, The Society, reinvigorates the idea (at least presumably, in the first season). The message from literature and film, however, is that finding an alternate universe rarely leads to positive results.

The Need, by Helen Phillips, strategically uses a parallel universe to tell her story of Molly, a paleobotanist who is haunted by its negative consequences. The science fiction aspect of this story is the part that glues the reader to its pages and gives the novel its heart-pounding quality.

Like some of the best science fiction, however, it is the mundane, human aspects of the novel that ultimately bless the story with its resonance and beauty.

The Need spends an extraordinary amount of time describing the dull work of a mother: putting apple sauce in bowls, forgetting a diaper and cleaning poop off the floor, remembering to feed one’s child at least two prunes a day, breastfeeding when the baby is indifferent, etc. etc. Phillip’s brilliance lies in her ability to make these moments of drudgery feel precious. These are the moments that build a life. We have historically tried to avoid them through childcare and technology, but they are still there.

The terror of this book comes from the persistent question that remains long after Phillips’s story is finished: is there a world where my children are no longer my children? Is there a world where I am no longer a mother?

The Need by Helen Phillips

Fiction – Simon and Schuster – 2019