Joining the Dots: Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars

donoghueI gazed up at the sky and let my eyes flicker from one constellation to another to another, jumping between stepping-stones. I thought of the heavenly bodies throwing down their narrow ropes of light to hook us.

I’d never believed the future was inscribed for each of us the day we were born. If anything was written in the stars, it was we who joined those dots, and our lives were in the writing.

I think Emma Donoghue is a good novelist. She has smart ideas and she has an enviable capacity to execute each new concept she comes up with both efficiently and competently: it seemed like I had only just filed my review of Akin for Canadian Notes and Queries when I heard that The Pull of the Stars was coming out, and Akin wasn’t that long after The Wonder, which I reviewed for the TLS. If my noting that Donoghue is efficient and competent seems like damning her with faint praise, well, you aren’t entirely wrong. What frustrates me is that while all of these novels are fine–I would even say that The Wonder is quite good–they are not great, and yet they somehow give me the impression that Donoghue could write a great novel if she took more time and dug a little deeper. (I’ve read two of Donoghue’s earlier novels, Room and Slammerkin; they too are fine. I think I also read The Sealed Letter; that I can’t remember for sure is perhaps not a good sign for it–or maybe for me!)

stars2Unfortunately, The Pull of the Stars is the least fine of the ones I’ve read: though I was gripped by it at first, by the end I found it quite disappointing. The ingredients are excellent, Donoghue’s research was obviously meticulous, and some moments are really memorable, but as a whole, it just doesn’t work very well. The premise is simple and promising: the novel covers three intense days in a Dublin maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. It follows the grueling and often heroic exertions of Nurse Julia Power, her feisty volunteer assistant Bridie Sweeney, and Dr. Kathleen Lynn, an actual historical person who (among other things) was active in Sinn Féin and a fierce advocate for “nutrition, housing, and sanitation for her fellow citizens” (from Donoghue’s Author’s Note). The graphic descriptions of medical crises and procedures–whether for symptoms of influenza or for childbirth–make for grim reading that’s often really absorbing, in a documentary sort of way. Here’s a representative sample:

I considered an enema but decided that she’d been eating so little, there was probably nothing in her bowels. The pangs kept coming every three minutes, a clockwork torture. For all Mary O’Rahilly’s efforts, nothing in her great taut bump seemed to be descending. Could the head be stuck at the pelvic brim? Nothing was changing except that the young woman was getting limper and paler . . . 

From the sterile trays on the high shelf I snatched a long needle, a tube, and rubber bulb syringe. I filled a bowl to the two-pint mark with hot water from the pan, measured the salt in, then brought it down to blood temperature by adding some cold.

When I tied a catgut ligature above Mary O’Rahilly’s right elbow and tightened it until a sky-blue vein stood out, she barely seemed to notice. Obedient to the next contraction, she gripped the roller towel and pushed her stockinged feet against the bare rails. (The pillow had fallen to the floor, but I couldn’t reach it.)

You can certainly picture all of this, just as you can “see” very clearly the whole awful process of her reaching up into a mother’s body to retrieve an unattached portion of the placenta or the awful progression of the influenza as it takes a young woman through the too-familiar stages “red to brown to blue to black.”

stars-audioAssuming you have the stomach for this kind of stuff, and also assuming you have the emotional fortitude to persist with a novel about a pandemic while in the midst of one (that was a close call for me)–if neither of those aspects of The Pull of the Stars puts you off, then what’s not to like? Well, of course you might like it just fine! My complaint is that for most of the book, there’s almost no story, no plot: it’s just a sequence of events. The only shape the narrative has is linear: things happen, one after another, and our small cast of characters reacts, but moving on to the next thing is not the same as going anywhere. Maybe that was a deliberate formal choice, as Julia herself resists the idea that people’s lives have direction or meaning, but for me it made the first three quarters of the novel feel aimless, with no sense that its parts were turning into anything. Then the novel became a love story, a development which seemed so abrupt it felt like an afterthought: there was no groundwork laid for it, no anticipation of it, no thematic reason for it. And then, just as abruptly, the love story [SPOILER ALERT] turns to tragedy, and while we know by then that the influenza can progress with appalling speed, still, it felt unfortunately pat as a way to wrap things up.

hamnet2There are some other threads of interest in the novel, including scathing critiques of the nuns and the abusive girls’ “homes” they run, and Dr. Lynn provides occasions for some bits of political back and forth. Again, these are good ingredients (especially Dr. Lynn, whose biography Kathleen Lynn: Irishwoman, Patriot, Doctor sounds well worth reading), but I like a novel to feel, by the end, like something significantly more than the sum of its parts, and I don’t think The Pull of the Stars pulled that off, even though Donoghue joins all the dots neatly enough. If for some reason you are actually in the mood for a novel about the plague, I would recommend reading Hamnet instead: it is original and beautiful and devastating in a way that Donoghue’s novel, well conceived and well written as it is, just isn’t.

Recent Reading Round-Up: Cohen, Donoghue, Knox

I  have some serious reading to do for my two book clubs this month — Madame Bovary for the local one and The Yacoubian Building for Slaves of Golconda. I’ve actually started both of them, though I started The Yacoubian Building so long ago that I think I’ll just start it over again. But at the same time I’ve been flitting around among a lot of different books for my light reading, so I thought I’d catch up on some of them here.

On the advice of Amateur Reader, I looked up Paula Marantz Cohen’s Jane Austen spin-offs, Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale; or, Love, Death, and the S.A.T.s. Both are intelligent, entertaining, satirical, and romantic without being sentimental. I thought  Jane Austen in Boca was unevenly constructed: the set-up was too long and the resolution too quick. I also thought the introduction of the college film crew was extraneous to the novel’s needs: it wasn’t even used as a device to resolve the romantic conflict. But that was OK: I enjoyed the quirky people and the milieu (both of which I envisioned looking exactly like the retirement community part of In Her Shoes) and the literary chit-chat, and especially the Austen seminar, from which AR has already quoted the best bits. I liked Jane Austen in Scarsdale better overall, and not just because it’s based on Persuasion rather than Pride and Prejudice. I thought the shifting of the Elliots’ class anxiety from Austen’s context to the context of status-obsessed parents angling to get their kids into the “best” colleges was really smart, and though I can imagine Cohen’s extended satire on the whole process seeming too extended to some readers, I found it very funny. Changing the Wentworth figure from a naval hero to a travel writer was also clever: how else could he have travelled the world and come back, not broke, but rich, after all? The bit that didn’t work as well, I thought, was the “giving him up on the advice of family” part, which just seemed really unlikely for modern characters. But maybe I just move in the wrong (or right!) circles.

Following the enthusiastic recommendations of Jessica at Read React Review and Liz at Something More, I picked up Ride with Me (continuing my intrepid explorations of Romance-land!) and, like both of them, quite enjoyed it. I’m not a biker, but I liked the premise because of the excuse it gave for lots of descriptions of the landscape, and also because travel narratives are always effective devices for character development and (in this case at least) relationships. I got a bit tired of the appreciative voyeurism–how interesting can it be for us to be told repeatedly how great someone looks, after all? And the really, really rich guy trope (experts: does this count as a trope?) is a bit annoying because it’s kind of like waving a magic wand over the story: I prefer an HEA that isn’t so imbalanced. I had lunch today with Sycorax Pine and we talked a bit about ideology and contemporary romance, and particularly about whether period romances may sometimes do a better job complicating things like gender roles and economic issues precisely because in looking back, we are able or willing to see more critically. No doubt, as a beginner, I should not generalize, but in this specific case and a couple of other romances I’ve read recently (like Julie James’s About That Night), it has bothered me that part of the happy ending is the implication that “money perfects everything.” But overall Ride with Me was a lot of fun, and even funny (like Jessica, I particularly enjoyed the hot sauce contest).

I guess it isn’t right to include Emma Donoghue’s Room as light reading, though it was certainly a very fast read. I avoided it for a long time: the premise made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t particularly love the other Donoghue novels I read. But it was hard not to be curious, given how much hype and acclaim it got, so when the e-book went on sale for $5 I couldn’t resist. For the first 50 or so pages I was captivated and really impressed: Jack’s voice is pitch-perfect given the concept, and Donoghue very effectively balances us on a knife-edge between innocence and evil because we can’t help but understand everything so very differently from Jack. Though the narrative conceit started to wear on me after a while, I also got very caught up in the suspense of their escape attempts. Unlike litlove, though (whose reading of the novel is wonderful), I tired quickly of the second half. After the initial shock of being introduced to the rest of the world, Jack began to seem to me too much of a device to show us the world as it seems to an outsider. His voice faltered too, I thought: though we were set up for his advanced vocabulary by the ‘parrot’ game he and his mother play and his otherwise hyper-developed skills, still, some of the comments he made seemed artificially pointed while at other times he seemed much more babyish than he ever did while in “Room.” The setting up of his new life felt laborious, too. Clearly, readers differ on this!  I’m very interested in litlove’s proposal that something more generalized comes out of the novel about childhood innocence and the difficulties we all have growing out of it, but I’m not comfortable reading the novel in a way that conflates Jack’s childhood, founded in trauma and built through artifice, with childhood in general–unless we want his mother’s relationship with Old Nick to stand in for marriage generally too, but nothing about Room gave me the sense that Donoghue intended it as an allegory overall. So for me, the novel works best at the more specific level, an experiment in perspective and psychology. I think the strengths of sticking to Jack’s point of view–including that it’s unexpected and often very poignant seeing as he sees–also become the novel’s weakness; I would have liked to switch to his mother’s point of view for the second half, perhaps, because it’s not that hard to get the idea that everything seems very strange to Jack, so instead of giving us a tour of everything as he gets around to it (a coffee shop! a toy store! a playground!) some of the realities of their captivity as well as of their re-adjustment could have been explored from a more sophisticated point of view.

Catching Up

Somehow I always forget how busy May is! There’s a lull after winter term grading is finished and then administrative tasks need doing–year-end committee reports and so on–and then the current crop of MA students heads into their thesis-writing phase, meaning draft chapters start coming in for comments. Last week we also had two Ph.D. students doing their comprehensive exams; I was involved in one as the student’s supervisor, so there was the exam itself to write and then the written portions to read, followed by the three hour oral exam; as Graduate Coordinator, I also chaired the second exam. Graduate admissions is an ongoing process, too, still involving an assortment of calls and emails and paperwork. In between these tasks I’ve been working on my paper for ACCUTE. Then there’s family life, too: a highlight last week was going to the Neptune Theatre’s production of High School Musical with my daughter–that was a lot of fun (Maddie was especially excited that the cast hung around in the lobby after the show to sign autographs). Last but not least, we’ve been watching the third season of Deadwood, which of course is “just for fun,” but I defy anyone to make it to Episode 6 or 7 without feeling a pretty strong compulsion to see how it all turns out. (It’s an extraordinary show, though I think I still rate The Wire higher.)

Anyway, no wonder I haven’t felt I could afford time for blogging, though I have been keeping an eye on my blogroll and in particular on this discussion at The Valve because one of my ACCUTE events is a lunch-hour session on academic blogging. (It strikes me that hopes or expectations for the potential of this form to shake things up in academic publishing have declined since The Valve was launched with this post–the premises and arguments of which I still find important and convincing.)

I’ve done a little reading, too (you always need something on the go to read with your morning tea, waiting for appointments, and so on!). One regrettable choice was Kate Jacobs’s The Friday Night Knitting Club. I wanted to like this one–just as I want to like the Elm Creek quilting series, and just as I do like leafing through quilting magazines, especially the kind featuring profiles of shops and the women who gather there. It’s some kind of fantasy of community and creativity, I think, of working all day with friends and having something beautiful to show for it. I do a little inexpert quilting, and have tried my hands at knitting too, and there is a simple satisfaction for me in the tangibility of the work; perhaps that’s part of the appeal too, as a contrast to the vagaries of academic and intellectual work. In any case, The Friday Night Knitting Club will teach me never again to buy a book with an endorsement from Glamour (“The book’s great–worth reading now!”). The best word I can think of for the writing is “cheap.” The plot pulls every predictable ploy: someone gets cancer, someone gets pregnant (guess which two major events are poignantly juxtaposed…), someone visits a wise old Scottish grandmother–who doesn’t talk anything like a wise old Scottish grandmother, unless unbelievably platitudinous advice is somehow authentic Scots wisdom:

‘You’ll have lots of questions to answer as you get older. Who you are. Who you want to be. What you think about things. Like politics. And romances. And whether you’ll speak out or keep your mouth shut. It’s always a challenge to work out the best way to live your life, and as much as everyone tells you what to do, ultimately how you do things is up to you.’

Offset short sentences bearing nuggets of painfully obvious insight or laboriously heavy-handed emotion are the author’s trademark:

It was only when the job was almost done that it hit her: a person didn’t return home to the Upper East Side from a building site in Park Slope, Brooklyn, via the West Side.

James must have made a special trip.

Just to see her.

Phew. That stinks.* I actually find this kind of book obliquely insulting to women (to whom, of course, it is exclusively marketed, I’m sure). And yet, apparently it was a New York Times bestseller, so I suppose I can only lament the laziness of taste and discrimination that makes something like this a success.

Now I’m reading Emma Donoghue‘s The Sealed Letter. I wasn’t wild about Slammerkin, but the premise of this novel is a good one and the reviews (including this one in the Globe and Mail) made it sound both intelligent and entertaining. So far, it’s just OK. One problem for a Victorianist is that much of what is provided as context in the novel (a bit woodenly, at times) is pretty familiar stuff, from the members and activities of the Langham Place group to the peculiarities and injustices of Victorian divorce law. Donoghue also does not seem to be using her historical materials to any strong thematic purpose: the novel is about the Codrington case, but what else is it about? As a chronicle of a broken marriage, The Sealed Letter is a pale shadow of Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right (see, for instance, here, here, or here), in which the breakdown of the Trevelyans’ marriage becomes part of a complex commentary on Victorian gender relations and marriage in the context of larger problems of distribution of power and authority. Also, who needs Crocker when they have Bozzle? As for neo-Victorian predecessors, well, (so far, again) Donoghue does not seem to have the gift of either Michel Faber or Sarah Waters for evoking the period in a profoundly contemporary but yet deeply convincing way. The greatest specific weakness I feel in the book is the friendship between Emily “Fido” Faithfull and Helen Codrington: they seem wholly dissimilar, and their interactions have a forced intensity that I find unmotivated by what we know about them (so far). Still, it is an interesting and fairly well-written book.

Next on my TBR pile: Emma Darwin’s The Mathematics of Love. But in the meantime, I’ll be grappling with the details of In the Eye of the Sun as I put the last parts of my argument into (I hope) coherent form for the conference. Note to me: there’s no shame in writing about short books…


*Does this count as the kind of “evaluative criticism” Nigel would like us to do more of? 🙂