Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett ✎✎✎

boat

When the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists for Fiction were announced, I’d read only one of the books: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/commonwealth-by-ann-patchett-✎✎✎✎/, and loved it. Since then, I’m through Moonglow by Michael Chabon, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/moonglow-by-michael-chabon-✎✎✎/, and Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. I have Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Louis Erdrich’s LaRose in my near future.

On a idyllic day on the Maine water, Imagine Me Gone finds British venture capitalist John takes two of his three children boating. Celia is the second-oldest of the three; ultra-responsible and caring, if a bit of a bore. Alec, the youngest, is a whiny, clingy child wanting always to be held. Once they are on the water, John leans back into the boat, closes his eyes and pronounces to his children: “Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?” Celia wishes for her stronger older brother, or to be stronger, or at the very least for her father to quit play-acting and help them get to shore.

But John doesn’t help. Arguably, John has never helped his wife Margaret or their three children. His career, which brought them back to America from Margaret’s preferred life across the pond, has tanked. His relationship with Michael is ineffectual. He and Margaret fight loudly every night, frightening Alec into hiccups.

John has chronic, clinical depression. It is a condition that materially affects every member of his family, each of whom has a compelling authorial voice in Imagine Me Gone.

From Margaret:

“I’m the only one who doesn’t always want answers. John may never articulate his questions, but they are with him, a way of being. And the children want answers to everything all the time. What’s for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner? Where’s Kelsey? Where’s Dad? Why do we have to come in? Why do we have to go to bed? Some days the only words I speak to them are answers, and reasons I can’t answer, and instructions in place of the answers they want.”

John:

“This is the thing: He isn’t calling about his exam. I don’t want to know that, but I do. He’s calling to be reassured about something he can’t put into words yet. I glimpsed it in him when he was young, but told myself, No, don’t imagine that. Children have stages; he’ll change. Then the words started running out of him in a torrent, and I knew they were being chased out by a force he couldn’t see. What was I supposed to say to Margaret? That I see it in him?”

Celia:

“When Paul drank more than a diabetic should or we argued about petty domestic things, I would employ a kind of preemptive nostalgia, filing the episodes away under the heading A Couple’s Early Years. This general retrospective of the present leaped ahead to forgive our moments of anger and doubt, and the occasional day when the frustration and recriminations between us became grinding. It helped alleviate my sense of having been duped into believing Paul would be the person to deliver me from my family, rather than imitate it. And really it was okay, and most often better than that, being the object of his desire, sensing he would never leave me. That we were safe.”

Alec:

As I stepped out of the cabin, whiteness blinded me. The snow-covered yard glistened under the full sun. Icicles lining the roof of the shed dripped with meltwater. The fir trees, which had stood motionless and black against the gray sky, appeared alive again, green and moist in the fresh light. The footprints that Michael and I had made on the snowy path were dissolving, fading into ovals on the flagstone. Beneath our tracks in the driveway I could see gravel for the first time since we’d arrived. For weeks it had been frigid cold, but now had come this December thaw. I wasn’t certain what day it was, or what time, only that it had to be well after noon already.

donna-summerBut perhaps it is Michael the reader hears most clearly, learns most deeply even through the mental illness that drives and disturbs him. We know of the path of devastation his love creates, his musical knowledge and reverence for Donna Summer, his humor, his lack of self-control. Even as he is annoying us with an exhaustive list, we are amused by him and wish him well. He’s trying to beat the beast, much more, we think, than his father ever did.

“I remember my first dose of Klonopin the way I imagine the elect recall their high school summer romances, bathed in the golden light of a perfect carelessness, untouched and untouchable by time’s predations or the foulness of any present pain. As Cat Stevens wrote, The first cut is the deepest, though I’ve always preferred Norma Fraser’s cover to the original (the legendary Studio One, Kingston, Jamaica, 1967). Stevens sings it like a pop song, but Fraser knows the line is true, that she’ll never love like that again. Her voice soars over the reverb like a bird in final flight. The first cut is the deepest. I’ve since learned all about GABA receptors and molecular binding, benzos and the dangers of tolerance, but back then I knew only that I had received an invisible and highly effective surgery to the mind, administered by a pale yellow tablet scored down the middle and no larger than an aspirin. There is so much drivel about psychoactive meds, so much corruptions, bad faith over- and underprescription, vagueness, profiteering, ignorance, and hope, that it’s easy to forget they sometimes work, alleviating real suffering, at least for a time. This was such a time.”

haslett

Adam Haslett

 

Imagine Me Gone was, for me, a strange book. Each of the five narrators is to a certain extent unreliable and the family picture comes together only when viewing all of the pieces together, like a work of pointillism. The writing is lovely as you can see from the pieces I’ve included here and the reviewers agree it’s a compelling work of fiction dealing sensitively with mental illness.

A review I read before I read the novel said this is a book about how far a family will go to help a family member with mental illness; how much of one’s own life is a person willing to cede to maintain some normalcy for another who could have little on his or her own. I suppose that’s true, but I thought it was more about family and expectations and loss and ultimately love.

imagine-me-gone

MENU

I can’t cite a menu from the book because I listened to it on Audible. I do remember Alec and Michael eating doughnuts every morning and Margaret’s frustration at going out for an overly-expensive dinner when she would have rather cooked at home. Perhaps if you want to replicate a menu from the book, you can look for that scene, somewhere around 2/3 of the way through.

I would focus on the environment of Maine and serve a blueberry dessert; maybe pie or cobbler. I would also pull in Michael’s life in London and serve a shepherd’s pie or maybe roast beef with potatoes so that I could have leftovers for the week.

MUSIC

This is the easy part. Just play Donna Summer all night.

MOVIE CASTING

John        Jude Law/Ewan McGregor

Margaret       This is a total Grace Kelly role. I can see Gwyneth Paltrow maybe.

Michael          Andrew Garfield

Celia                Blake Lively

Alec                  John Gallagher, Jr.

Happy Reading!

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

bertha and jane

Bertha and Jane by Monro S. Orr

There’s just something about a married man who keeps his mad wife in an attic that is so … alluring. Since Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1847, it has become the unlikely favorite book of so many generations of young women.

“A new adaptation of Jane Eyre came out every year, and every year it was exactly the same. An unknown actress would play Jane, and she was usually prettier than she should have been. A very handsome, very brooding, very ‘ooh-la-la’ man would play Rochester, and Judi Dench would play everyone else.”

from The Madwoman Upstairs.

Capitalizing on that fascination, in The Madwoman Upstairs Catherine Lowell presents Samantha Whipple, “the last Bronte,” whose famous-novelist-father has left her the Bronte inheritance, the “Warnings of Experience.” Samantha, however, must be able to find her legacy. And as a student in love with her professor at the Old College at Oxford University, it’s hard to find time to hunt for the fusty old things, organize her social life, and survive the dreary tower in which she’s, mysteriously, been assigned to live much less the unknown “Warnings of Experience.”

Anne Bronte, author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Charlotte, and brother Branwell, all come in for examination in The Madwoman Upstairs as do their literary works.

Rochester

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester

Despite an undergraduate degree in English Literature, I found myself surprised by the amount of information I did not know contained in The Madwoman Upstairs. Not only Bronte trivia, but literary criticism, theory, debate, history. I suspect Ms. Lowell of having a Bronte dissertation hiding in her past. But the novel  is not all Bronte. There is an original mystery here and Samantha Whipple sets out to solve it, whether her hot (think Fassbender as Rochester) professor, James Timothy Orville, wants her to or not.

Lowell’s novel supposes that much of the inspiration for Anne, Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s novel came from real incidents in their own life. She postulates that brother Branwell may have fought a fire similar to the scene in Jane Eyre.

“Was that Grace Poole? and is she possessed with a devil?” thought I.  Impossible now to remain longer by myself: I must go to Mrs. Fairfax.  I hurried on my frock and a shawl; I withdrew the bolt and opened the door with a trembling hand.  There was a candle burning just outside, and on the matting in the gallery.  I was surprised at this circumstance: but still more was I amazed to perceive the air quite dim, as if filled with smoke; and, while looking to the right hand and left, to find whence these blue wreaths issued, I became further aware of a strong smell of burning.

Something creaked: it was a door ajar; and that door was Mr. Rochester’s, and the smoke rushed in a cloud from thence.  I thought no more of Mrs. Fairfax; I thought no more of Grace Poole, or the laugh: in an instant, I was within the chamber.  Tongues of flame darted round the bed: the curtains were on fire.  In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr. Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep.

“Wake! wake!” I cried.  I shook him, but he only murmured and turned: the smoke had stupefied him.  Not a moment could be lost: the very sheets were kindling, I rushed to his basin and ewer; fortunately, one was wide and the other deep, and both were filled with water.  I heaved them up, deluged the bed and its occupant, flew back to my own room, brought my own water-jug, baptized the couch afresh, and, by God’s aid, succeeded in extinguishing the flames which were devouring it.

The hiss of the quenched element, the breakage of a pitcher which I flung from my hand when I had emptied it, and, above all, the splash of the shower-bath I had liberally bestowed, roused Mr. Rochester at last.  Though it was now dark, I knew he was awake; because I heard him fulminating strange anathemas at finding himself lying in a pool of water.

In the end, Lowell’s story is Samantha Whipple’s search for her own ending, through the lives of her ancestors. And quite a lovely one it is. Lots of good discussion points, both about The Madwoman Upstairs and the Bronte books. I highly recommend.

I’ve previously provided a bookclub blueprint for Jane Eyre which contains some additional information and recipes: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/24/plain-jane-jane-eyre-by-charlotte-bronte/. And also for The Wide Sargasso Sea, an imagined retelling of Bertha Mason’s story from her own viewpoint, also with music and recipes: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/mrs-rochesters-room-of-her-own-wide-sargasso-sea-by-jean-rhys/.

The Madwoman Upstairs’ publisher, Simon & Schuster, provides a book discussion group guide with questions should you be so inclined: http://books.simonandschuster.com/The-Madwoman-Upstairs/Catherine-Lowell/9781501124211/reading_group_guide#rgg

MENU

There isn’t a whole lot of food mentioned in The Woman Upstairs, leaving ample room for creativity. There’s a scene where Hot Teacher makes breakfast for Samantha but my book club would want a bit more. So my menu would be British pub food followed by a tribute to Jane Eyre.

Fish and Chips. Here’s a recipe from British chef Jamie Oliver: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/jamie-oliver/fish-and-chips-recipe.html

Shepherd’s Pie. One of my favorites. http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/easy_shepherds_pie/

And for dessert, what could be more appropriate than a bit of a flaming dish. Just be sure not to light the bed curtains on fire. Here’s a recipe for Bananas Foster, with video demonstration: http://foodwishes.blogspot.com/2014/11/bananas-foster-americas-favorite.html

Update: My long-time book club met last night and our lovely hostess served Shepherd’s Pie, roast chicken and a wonderful ice box cake — inspired by the cake Orville pulled out of the freezer to feed Samantha. She found the recipe on line and it was so good, I wanted to share it with you: http://www.completelydelicious.com/2014/06/smores-no-bake-icebox-cake.html

MUSIC

There are soundtracks available on Amazon and iTunes for multiple movie renditions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and a BBC-production of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I previewed The Tenant music and that’s what I would use. It’s haunting, wild, passionate in places, and since much of The Madwoman Upstairs focuses on Anne Bronte, seems most appropriate.

The_Brontë_Sisters_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë_restored

The Bronte Sisters by Patrick Branwell Bronte

Our book club also had some fun discussions about movie casting. The biggest problem we had in casting was Orville. Maybe Andrew Garfield? My suggestion of Benedict Cumberbatch met with resounding “nooooooos.”

Samantha – we didn’t actually discuss Samantha. But I think Hailee Steinfeld would be perfect.

Rebecca – the suggestion of Julianne Moore was made. I saw her more as Charlotte Rampling.

Sir John Booker – Ian McKellen.

Samantha’s mom – I don’t know why, but I see Helena Bonham-Carter

Samantha’s dad – Again, I’m not sure why, but when I read I was picturing Kenneth Branagh.

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

paying guests At 566 pages, you would think Sarah Waters’ sixth novel, The Paying Guests, would leave no stone unturned in this tale of the diminished circumstances of an English mother and daughter, the Wrays, who must open their suburban Champion Hill home to a young, married couple of a lower class.  Frances Wray, the isolated, sexually-frustrated, not-quite-closeted daughter, solicitously cares for her widowed mother, who is mourning the loss of her two sons in WW1.  As a result of all of the men being killed, the Wray women must somehow fend for themselves and the renting of a room seems their only option.  The first of my questions is:  if the family consisted of a mother, father, two sons and a daughter, why is it that Frances may retain her own room but Mrs. Wray must move into the former dining room in order to rent a room to the paying guests (Lilian and Leonard Barber)?  Surely there were at least two more rooms if not three?

In any event, Lilian and Leonard, the paying guests to which the title refers, move into the room across the hall from Frances, dragging in their cheap collection of tchotchkes as Frances monitors every movement and sound and smell.

There was no one save Mr. Barber, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, his jacket off, his cuffs rolled back, he was fiddling with a nasty thing he had evidently just hung on the landing wall, a combination barometer-and-clothes-brush set with a lurid orangey varnish.  But lurid touches were everywhere, she saw with dismay:  It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick.  The faded carpet in her mother’s old bedroom was lost beneath pseudo-Persian rugs.  The lovely pierglass had been draped slant-wise with a fringed Indian shawl.  A print on one of the walls appeared to be a Classical nude in the Lord Leighton manner.  The wicker birdcage twirled slowly on a ribbon from a hook that had been screwed into the ceiling; inside it was a silk-and-feather parrot on a papier-mâché perch.

LORD-FREDERIC-LEIGHTON-ACTAEA-THE-NYMPH-OF-THE-SHOREActaea, Lord Leighton

     As a result of the Wrays poverty, Frances must undertake all of the drudge work, all of the cooking, all of the cleaning, because her mother (at age 55) is incapable of any of it.  Most of the really hard work Frances must do out of sight of her mother because Mrs. Wray just becomes too verklempt actually witnessing Frances work so hard, feats of physical labor documented by Waters in exquisite detail.

She worked briskly and efficiently, taking her brush and pan from the drawing-room to the top of the stairs and making her way back down, a step at a time; after that she filled a bucket with water, fetched her kneeling-mat, and began to wash the hall floor. Vinegar was all she used. Soap left streaks on the black tiles. The first, wet rub was important for loosening the dirt, but it was the second bit that really counted, passing the wrung cloth over the floor in one supple, unbroken movement… There! How pleasing each glossy tile was. The gloss would fade in about five minutes as the surface dried; but everything faded. The vital thing was to make the most of the moments of brightness. There was no point dwelling on the scuffs.

     Soon, in Waters’ overwrought, lavender prose, Frances turns toward the lollipop light of Lili and becomes obsessed by and ultimately in love with her.  In the words of Julia Keller, NPR’s reviewer of The Paying Guests, Frances and Lilian “begin a red-hot affair.”

Waters is a master of the slow build, of the gradual assemblage of tiny random moments that result in a life-altering love. She captures the deep emotion that can underlie the crude mechanics of sex, the poetry that keeps it from being just a midnight merging of limbs and orifices. Forget about Fifty Shades of Grey; this novel is one of the most sensual you will ever read, and all without sacrificing either good taste or a “G” rating.

http://www.npr.org/2014/09/23/347418535/a-historic-backdrop-frames-forbidden-love-in-the-paying-guests

   The reviews of this book glow.  I was so excited to read it, I bought the hardbound copy.  Michael Dirda in reviewing for the Washington Post says “that the reader is in for a seriously heart-pounding roller-coaster ride.”  http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/michael-dirda-reviews-the-paying-guests-by-sarah-waters/2014/09/10/811596ac-351f-11e4-9e92-0899b306bbea_story.html

     Unfortunately, I did not agree.  It seemed to me there was quite a bit of walking back and forth between rooms and a whole lot of waiting for something worth talking about to happen.  I wasn’t enthralled by Frances’ dissatisfaction and inertia, her mother’s utter helplessness, Lili’s manipulative tackiness, or Leonard’s boorish charm.  I had no one to care about, no one to root for and lots of pages of detail to wade through before reaching the completely unbelievable conclusion.  But be advised, I am a minority of one from what I can find.

MENU

     Should my book club choose The Paying Guests, I would forego all food mentioned in the book.  Cauliflower cheese, well-beaten skirt steak, etc. and try for something a bit more “clever.”  Paninis perhaps, a pressed food to represent the repressed nature of Frances.  Pasta with lots of olive oil as an homage to Leonard’s greasiness.  A hard boiled egg for Mrs. Wray.  Something pink and sticky, like taffy, for Lili.

Salt-Water-Taffy_company_gallery_image

MUSIC

    Despite the setting of the 1920s, there’s no mention of jazz, or the fun clubs like the Savile where the Downton Abbey girls seem to go.  http://vimeo.com/92133776

    When Frances and Lili go roller skating there is mention of some music, “mild old things from thirty or forty years before.”

Funiculi Funicula

The Merry Widow Waltz  (wonder what it sounds like?  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELufSzviGoU)

MOVIE CASTING

     Given the time period of the book and my status as such a fan of Downton Abbey, it’s definitely hard to steer away from that show’s cast for a suggested movie cast of The Paying Guests.

Leonard — Allen Leach (Tom Bransom)

Frances — Daisy Lewis (Miss Bunting)

Lilian — Lily James (Lady Rose MacClare)

Mrs. Wray — Elizabeth McGovern

    In the interest of fun, I’ll also try a non-Downton cast.

Frances — Romola Garai

Lilian — Imogen Poots

Mrs. Wray — Emma Thompson — because I LOVE HER

Leonard — Henry Cavill

     Happy Reading!