We interrupt this vacation blogging again to address what I read on my vacation, which started with the fabulous Real Life & Liars, the first novel by Literary Mama’s fiction co-editor, Kristina Riggle.
I’m in the happy position now that a good portion of my bookshelf is filled with books written by women I know and like. I suppose there could be some anxiety in this — what if I don’t like the book as much as the writer? — but so far I haven’t been disappointed. Still, many of those books developed out of columns I’d been following for a while, or grew in my writing group. In Kristina’s case, I’d only read one short story of hers, What Kind of Mother (published on Literary Mama), and although we correspond regularly and were lucky enough to meet last winter at a conference, I had no idea what her writer’s voice, her fiction voice, might be like until she read a portion of the book at an event during that conference and I was mesmerized. The mother of two young kids that I’d been talking to over dinner before the reading disappeared into a pot-smoking, raspy-voiced mother of three grown children, grudgingly submitting to an anniversary party thrown by her eldest daughter, a polished suburban mother completely different from herself. I knew then not to worry about the rest of the book.
And I adored it.
The book takes place over the weekend of Max and Mirabelle Zielinski’s anniversary party, a family reunion at which a number of family secrets and lies are revealed. Riggle narrates the story from the perspectives of Mira and her three children: Katya, a suburban mother of three who, as Mira puts it, “drags [her younger siblings] along under the wheels of her train”; Ivan, a struggling songwriter who can’t see the love that’s right in front of him; and Irina, who is accidentally (reluctantly) pregnant and married to a man who isn’t going to let her screw it up.
Mira sees her children like she’s got a magnifying glass on them, and Riggle emphasizes Mira’s maternal perspective subtly by granting her the only first-person narration of the book; her three children’s stories are all told in the 3rd person. Meanwhile, Mira’s husband Max, a successful novelist, doesn’t get a turn at telling the story, which nicely underlines his position in the family: in it, certainly, but always maintaining a bit of distracted distance. As his son, Ivan, puts it of Max, in one of my favorite lines of the book: he “always seems to be writing his novels on the opposite wall of whatever room he’s in…” It’s a tricky thing to handle the shifting perspectives so fluidly, but Riggle pulls it off without a hitch.
I won’t give the story away by telling what happens, but instead, and in the spirit of this sharply funny and concise novel, I’ll just share a few of my favorite passages:
Here’s Katya: “A mosquito lands on her linen pants and stabs through to suck at her. What’s one more parasite, Katya thinks. Go ahead, suck me dry along with everyone else. The reflexive shame kicks in at thinking of her family this way.”
Here’s Ivan: “For a time, Van had a poster of his hero taped on his apartment wall. Bob Dylan stared down at him every night and every morning, heavy-lidded, cigarette drooping.
“Then Van got drunk on whiskey and self-pity one night and ripped it down, and in the blazing light of morning, through his hangover fog, he’d noticed that the paint had faded all around where it was taped, so he’d been left with his imprint. It was like a chalk outline around the corpse of his ambition.”
And Irina: “She always seemed to zoom back toward home base after every relationship went up in flames, brushing ashes out of her hair.”
But my favorite character is Mira, knowing but flawed Mira, who muses, “We all have the best-laid plans for our children, and they go and ruin it all by growing up any way they want to. What the hell was it all for, then?” Mira’s children don’t need her like they used to, her marriage has settled into something more comfortable than passionate, and her job, teaching college, may be coming to an end as well. She’s faced with some things that are making her reflect on her choices, but she knows she’s got a lot to be grateful for; she did a lot right. And although I’m at a very different stage in my life than Mirabelle Zielinski is, I loved her voice, and felt like I was in very good company reading her story. She and her family are characters that are going to stay with me a good long while.