What exactly do you want from a novel? Should it mirror your world, reflect it back to you? Or do you want it to take you somewhere else, to a life you wouldn’t otherwise know?
I’ve just finished, Rachel Pastan’s Lady of the Snakes . It’s about Jane Levitsky, a rising young academic, deeply devoted to her research into the personal diaries of Masha Karkova, wife of the great 19th century Russian novelist, Grigory Karkov. Jane retreats to the diaries every chance she gets, determined to prove Masha’s influence over Grigory’s fiction and thereby assure her own reputation as breakthrough feminist scholar. Such is the way academic reputations are made and tenure earned. She has an adoring and sympathetic husband, Billy, whom she adores in turn, but then comes a baby, a real job as star replacement for the country’s foremost Karkov scholar at the University of Wisconsin with all its attendant pressures, and all the predictable plot points we can see coming the proverbial mile away.
As Jane struggles to meet the new demands of university teaching and continue her research, she pays less and less attention to Billy and Maisie, their little girl. While Jane is off doing research in Chicago , Billy has to rush their child to the hospital, where she finds the toddler hooked up to respirators. When Jane comes home from campus unexpectedly one day, she discovers Billy with the baby sitter, a young woman who just happens to be writing her dissertation under Jane’s direction. Then there are the secondary characters who stand for the formulaic choices women are supposed to face: Jane’s formidable, ferociously unmaternal academic advisor who tells her that it’s impossible to “serve two masters,” her career and a child; and the old friend from graduate school, the brilliant woman Jane looked to as a model, who relinquished her career soon after getting tenure in order to stay home with three kids and a pleasant though demanding husband.
But while this novel follows an all too familiar formula, while the plot seems contrived with events designed simply to move the conventional plot along, and while it contains some extremely annoying and obvious snake imagery that slithers across page after page, it would be a mistake to tar it with the chick lit feather. For one thing, there’s not a stiletto in sight, nor does anyone go shopping. As a recovering academic, I found it filled with enough scholarly intrigue to be both interesting and wishfully credible. In the quiet of the library, Jane discovers a whole lot more about Masha than she’d ever suspected, a secret guaranteed to make her a star and to get her into trouble with her predecessor. The novel is also intellectually ambitious. Pastan doesn’t just invent a Russian literary master in the manner of Pushkin or Tolstoy. In imagining the diaries of the novelist’s wife, Pastan imagines the diary entries themselves, writing in Masha’s voice as well as the narrator’s. Pastan skirts the temptation to oversimplify her characters, too. She’s good at depicting the complexity of human emotions, demonstrating that someone can be both duplicitous and kind, arrogant and sympathetic, good with children, yet capable of betrayal, filled with rage, yet forgiving. To Pastan’s credit, the novel refuses familiar false oppositions, accepting the perpetual pull and push of work and family. By the end, Jane understands that “it would never be banished … the guilt, and the worry about what the right thing was. You could pluck it the way she plucked shiny leaves of goutweed by the driveway, but the blind white roots always thrust up more.” But, she counters, “who was she to feel that working and raising children at the same time was impossible, a mountain too steep to climb? …Who, after all, was to say what was impossible?”
And who is to say what one person wants from a novel? It’s my hunch that if you can actually find the time to sit down with a novel, you have to tire of reading the same formula done over and over with just superficial changes and varying degrees of writing talent. Don’t you? On the other hand, perhaps the work/mother struggle is so compelling that you need to see it rehearsed over and over again in different contexts. Tell me what you think? Why do you read? What are novels for, anyway??