Jul 26, 2013 Books
By Emily Perkins
The great, great strength of the book is this: you’re locked in an intensely realised moment with the protagonist, Dorothy Forrest, also known as Dot and Dottie, you do not know how that moment is going to end, and the dread just fills you up. Pre-event drinks at a school reunion. Making dinner in a ski hut. Chatting by the pool, on holiday. Meeting a friend. Meeting your mother.
So you sit there on the edge of your seat, reading carefully through each episode so as not to miss the significance of every little thing and you do not know: will this moment turn to heartbreak? Humiliation? Joy? Is the world about to shift on its axis or is this just another day?
Welcome to life, in among the Forrests, where they know about the loss that accompanies every love after the first love, the endless disappointment of putting yourself out in the world, the anxiety of parenthood. All the time, the anxiety of parenthood.
It’s a high-stakes game for a writer, keeping intensity like this going all the way through a novel, because it’s exhausting for the reader. Emily Perkins knows how to get over that: she has her characters seduce us. They slip onto the page wreathed in mystery and sometimes also charm, and you want and need to know more.
The stakes are also high when all the information is systematically hidden between the lines. Perkins lets characters die, betray each other in love, miss their big chances in life so tragically that all else seems ruined, and she never tells you, in so many words, any of it.
Handling subtext this formally, without it just sounding like a writing exercise, is very hard. Virginia Woolf showed the way, especially with The Waves, and that — I’m serious about this — is the company Emily Perkins keeps with this book.
There’s more. Like Woolf, Perkins has characters who take a sly delight in subverting social expectation, and is in love with language. “Sunlight badoinged off storefronts’ plated glass,” she writes, and you go badoinging yourself, right off the sentence and around the room.
The Forrest family arrives here from New York when sisters Dorothy and Evelyn are still children. Their mother is distracted, their father even more so. We follow Dorothy through episodes from her family life — she is a contemporary of Perkins herself, who is now in her 40s, and who imbues Dorothy with much that feels personal, before projecting ahead, tipping her deep into middle age and out again.
Perkins inhabits the young adult versions of the sisters, in particular, with a palpable infatuation. They are fey, pretty, acutely attuned to the moment and to themselves in the moment, and we to them.
Their husbands, on the other hand, are obliquely sketched. They barely speak, we’re never in their heads, they’re unknown and it feels like this is because they are unknowable — even to their wives. That casts a sheen of grief over the relationships, and the women don’t exactly seem to think it’s wrong. It just is. These men and women co-exist, taking pleasure in each other, inflicting pain, holding each other near to but not exactly in their hearts.
Late in life, Dorothy is told something she didn’t know that has defined her entire extended family. It changes her appreciation of her parents, but more so of herself. She had assumed — and we with her — that she was the functional adult at the Forrests’ emotional and moral core. Actually, she was so peripheral she didn’t know what was really going on.
This isn’t a life measured in evenly arranged teaspoons. There’s little of old age. Only one thing really matters: the great glancing blow of love, which Dot experiences once and reels from ever after.
Her Daniel is a cipher, never brought close to us even in the most intimate moments. He is there for all of us: our secret life, the lover we weren’t supposed to have, the life we weren’t supposed to lead, and didn’t, and couldn’t lead.
There is an episode where Dot, lost in a state of motherhood that has overwhelmed her, made her fat and agoraphobic, invites a young man into her house. You know it could end very badly, and you read on in dread, but what she does is offer a moment of friendship to this vulnerable stranger, and it helps her deal with her own desperation. It’s just a thing in the mess of a life, but it’s also a profound affirmation of humanism.
And yet, life is failure, accident, collapse, a withering. We survive, until we don’t. That should make this a novel of great despair. It doesn’t, though, because there is rapture, in moments, and it wouldn’t make sense if rapture was all there is.
Already, influential British types are talking about this as a Booker winner. If there’s justice in the book prize world, which there often isn’t, it will be in the running.
This review appeared in the May 2012 issue of Metro.