Olga Dies Dreaming

Once upon a time I had a job so terrible and a life crammed so full of responsibilities and minor crises that when I got into my car to begin my commute, I would give myself five seconds to fantasize about driving far, far away, so far away that neither my boss nor my children’s school would ever find me. I never actually did that, of course, but I don’t think I’m alone in sometimes daydreaming about it. There is a whole mini-genre of novels about women who walk away from their families: Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, Dana Spiotta’s Wayward, Gayle Forman’s Leave Me, just to name a few.

Xochitl Gonzalez’s novel Olga Dies Dreaming could be one of those stories about a mother freeing herself from the stress and grind of family life. The title character’s mother, Blanca, abandons her children when they are teenagers to pursue a life of political activism in Puerto Rico. She never regrets this choice. “Nothing, Olga, is more valuable than people being free,” she writes in her farewell note to her thirteen-year-old daughter. “Which is why, despite this being one of my own harder choices, I must leave you and your brother.”

On the other hand, you could see Blanca as a modern-day Mrs. Jellyby (minus the colonialism), neglecting the children sitting right next to her in favor of a faraway cause. When the book opens, some twenty years after Blanca’s escape to her homeland, both of her children plainly display the scars of her abandonment Olga is a jaded celebrity wedding planner; her brother, Pedro, is an anxious up-and-coming Congressman. Olga is brisk, efficient, and lonely: she has no friends other than her family, and her main romantic connection is with a wealthy older man who mostly enjoys having her as an ornament on his arm. Pedro is successful but haunted by a personal secret that he can barely admit even to himself, a secret that he is convinced will destroy his career. Both of them are financially successful, but neither of them has ever recovered from the fact that their mother left them. The emotional wounds never close, in part because their mother continues to write them, offering frank criticisms of their current lives.

Olga is under no illusions about the importance of her work, but she believes in her brother. “My mother thinks what I’m doing is stupid and I’m not sure I disagree,” she says in exasperation. “I’m absolutely ‘a slave to the capitalist needs of the White Man.’ Worst of all, I really enjoy money. My brother though? He doesn’t give a shit about any of that. All these City Council guys, these guys in Congress, pocketing this or that kickback so they can buy a house or send their kids to private school? My brother still lives in my grandmother’s house.” But Pedro has made compromises of his own, compromises he had to make to keep his own sense of self afloat, compromises he hopes Olga will never learn about.

For all Olga’s cynicism, Olga Dies Dreaming is ultimately a novel about love, love in all its varieties. Romantic love, yes, but also the love you have for your siblings, for your parents, for your children. Love for your homeland, love for the causes you hold dear, and not least the love you have for your own soul. Almost inevitably, this novel about love is also a novel about betrayal. When you choose between two loves — as Olga’s mother did — the one left unchosen will always feel the sting of rejection. Love and betrayal are inextricably intertwined. As the book continues, both Olga and Pedro are forced to make choices between the people they love and their own needs. For them, too, it is impossible to choose one love without betraying another.

When Blanca left her children, she wasn’t just walking away from them; she was walking toward something, something that felt more important and compelling to her than motherhood. It’s clear she would make the same choice again. Given a different spin, this could be a rah-rah “you go girl” tale of a woman beating the odds to reach her destiny. But Gonzalez forces us to look at the damage done to the people she betrayed when she chose one love over another.

What I Read This Week

Our Country Friends is a novel by Gary Shteyngart that tackles coronavirus head-on. It’s March 2020, and a racially and culturally diverse set of friends are waiting out the pandemic at a country house. They live there for several months, coming together and breaking apart, sometimes at odds, sometimes enjoying each other’s company, sometimes gritting their teeth and rolling their eyes.

The whole time I was reading this book I kept felt like I was missing something. I don’t mean that I was missing plot points — my attention didn’t really wander and I always knew what was going on — but I felt like there was some big thematic something that was lurking in the background that I wasn’t picking up on. My suspicion is that there are allusions and references to Russian novels that I am not getting because I’ve really only read The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, and those were both a long time ago. (Someone on Litsy suggested that the book is modeled on Uncle Vanya and — maybe? I don’t know, it’s also been a long time since I’ve read Uncle Vany.)

But I didn’t get whatever point of reference there was, so I can report that this book is — fine. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I didn’t really buy that the kid was only eight, but I developed a fondness for Vinod. Maybe someday I’ll see a production of Uncle Vanya and everything will click and I’ll revise my mental rating. Or maybe the discussion during the Tournament of Books will illuminate it for me. Until then, it’s a solid three stars.

Madhouse at the End of the Earth is Julian Sancton’s account of the Belgica, a Belgian ship captained by Adrien de Gerlache, a 28-year-old man determined to achieve glory for his homeland by exploring Antarctica. De Gerlache and his crew — including the famed Roald Amundsen — lose time, encounter various setbacks and in the end are forced to spend almost a year stuck in Antarctic sea ice. Most of them do make it back to Europe eventually, and de Gerlache and some of his crew now have namesake islands and landmasses in Antarctica.

I have always had a thing for books about nineteenth-century seafaring — beginning with Mutiny in the Bounty, which I read approximately one thousand times when I was growing up — and so I enjoyed this account, although conscience compels me to report it isn’t as vibrantly written or as eventful as Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice, an account of a North Polar expedition gone horribly wrong. The book is filled with interesting characters; besides Amundsen, there is the ship’s doctor, Frederick Cook, who comes across as proactive and energetic and a little bit full of himself (he would later spend several years in prison for fraud) and de Gerlache himself, who seems hubristic, unwise, and far too young to be in charge of the Belgica. The best adventure books keep you tense and attentive even when you know how they end, and I certainly was holding my breath as the crew attempted to break their ship out of the sea ice.

Alison Weir’s biography of Katherine Swynford, Mistress of the Monarchy, is absolutely delicious if you’re into biographies of medieval noblewomen. Katherine Swynford was the longtime mistress of John of Gaunt, who was Richard II’s uncle and adviser, and Henry IV’s father. Gaunt was a very powerful man in his day, second only to the king, and his affair with Swynford was quite the scandal at the time.

There’s not a great deal of evidence about Swynford’s life: we don’t have letters or papers or a will or personal possessions or even any recorded words. Given all of that, Weir does a masterful job of cobbling together a four-hundred-page biography. As usual with Weir, I question some of her conclusions. I think she has a tendency to interpret evidence in the way that will make her happiest. In the case of Swynford and Gaunt, she is very invested in the idea that they were a true love-match. She is also attached to the notion that Gaunt was deeply in love with his first wife and would never have cheated on her. These beliefs affect the way she interprets every scrap of data, and lead her to insist upon “facts” that she can’t possibly establish as firmly as she thinks she can. (At one point, she refers to her belief that Gaunt would not have lied to the pope about his sex life as “watertight” evidence. Personally, I feel that the pope might be one of the first people you would lie to about your sex life.)

So I’m not convinced that Swynford and Gaunt are the great romance that Weir wants them to be. These were two wealthy, ambitious people who seem to have been rational actors. They may have begun their affair out of love (or lust) but once they had children there were plenty of political and financial reasons for them to continue a partnership, romantic or not. That doesn’t make them, or this book, any less fascinating.

Recitatif: The Shifting Sands of Historical Memory

Recitatif,” the late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s only short story, is explicitly concerned with race. When this new edition appeared on my Kindle yesterday, I thought, what a fortuitous time for the rerelease of this story. So far this week we’ve had a firestorm over the president’s commitment to nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court and a slightly smaller firestorm over a Black actress saying that the Holocaust wasn’t about race, and it’s only Wednesday. But this is an illusion. I live in the United States. Name a week in the last fifty years when a short story about race wouldn’t have seemed eerily topical.

In “Recitatif,” Twyla and Roberta meet as children, two little girls shunted into St. Bonny’s, a children’s home. Alone among the children, these girls have living mothers. Twyla’s is irresponsible; Roberta’s is sick. Because these girls have living parents, because they are abandoned rather than simply unlucky, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder at the home. Well, not quite the lowest rung — they are a step ahead of Maggie, a mute kitchen worker who is bullied by the older girls:

Maggie fell down there once. . . . And the big girls laughed at her. We should have helped her up, I know, but we were scared of those girls with lipstick and eyebrow pencil. Maggie couldn’t talk. The kids said she had her tongue cut out, but I think she was just born that way: mute. She was old and sandy colored and she worked in the kitchen. I don’t know if she was nice or not. I just remember her legs like parentheses and how she rocked when she walked.

The girls share a room for a few weeks, and then they go home. They meet up a few times in future years. They occupy different social strata as adults and, perhaps for that reason, they remember parts of their time at the children’s home very differently. In particular, they cannot agree on their interactions with Maggie.

Morrison’s story has a trap at its center: we know that Twyla and Roberta are of different races. But Morrison never tells us who’s who. You can guess, but to guess is to fall into Morrison’s trap. Every guess you make reveals something about yourself and your perceptions of race and class, perceptions that you may not have been aware that you had. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to finish it without feeling at least a little uneasy about your own unexamined prejudices. “When she called ‘Recitatif’ an ‘experiment’ she meant it,” writes Zadie Smith in an excellent, thoughtful introduction. “The subject of the experiment is the reader.” (Smith seems to believe that Twyla, the viewpoint character, is probably Black; I very tentatively thought she was White.)

“Recitatif,” then, offers two interconnected questions without easy answers: what happened the day that Maggie fell down? And are Twyla and Roberta Black and White, or White and Black? Once you reflect on these questions for a little while, you realize there is a third: Does your perception of the race of these girls affect how you think about Maggie and the day that she fell? And even a fourth: Does the story hit different if you switch the races of the girls in your mind? The more you read the story, the more you feel that you are standing on shifting sand. All I can say for certain is that one girl ended up rich and the other ended up poor, but neither of them ever really left the children’s home behind. Two girls, with different pasts and different futures, both destined to be haunted forever by their experiences in the home. Experiences that they shared, but cannot even agree on.

It struck me as I typed the last paragraph that maybe this is what all of our fights about race boil down to: history that we share but can’t agree on. History that we keep trying to rearrange in our minds, because the rearrangement will allow us to believe we live in a world that is mostly good and just. That’s over now, we say. It was a long time ago and it doesn’t matter today. We tell ourselves the biggest lie of all: It was a different time, people didn’t understand.

But although the reader can’t be certain of the truth about what happened at St. Bonny’s, it is possible to know the truth of history, if we’re only willing to look at it. Maybe it comforts you to think that your Confederate ancestor just believed in states’ rights really fervently. Maybe you find it easier to make a passionate argument against affirmative action if you pretend centuries of chattel slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and redlining didn’t happen. Maybe you feel less unsettled if you think of the Holocaust as a crime perpetrated by a small but uniquely evil group of men rather than a race-based genocide that most of the population colluded in. But the comfort you take in those beliefs can’t make them true.

What we keep learning over and over again is that the past finds you and won’t let you rest no matter how hard you try to hide from it. This is the reality that Roberta and Twyla face in their last meeting, a meeting that ends with Roberta wiping away confused tears. And it’s the reality we face as a nation, every time another firestorm over race erupts and we’re faced with another piece of history we can’t bear to look at head-on.

Fiona and Jane: On Friendship

I met my two best friends during the first year of college. We’ve been a trio for many years now, three decades, and although I remember meeting them very clearly it’s also almost impossible to realize that there was ever a time when my first reaction to significant news — good or bad — wasn’t to share it with them, a time when in fact I wouldn’t have known who they were at all. We message each other almost every day. Our friendship is central to my life.

I’m telling you this because I’m certain this thirty-year friendship affected the way I read this book. Fiona and Jane is the story of two Chinese-American girls; eventually we learn of their childhood and their adulthood, but the story is not told chronologically. Fiona and Jane is billed as a linked short-story collection but it works better if you think of it as a novel told in vignettes. Most of the chapters would feel slightly empty as standalone stories. But read one after another, they build a resonance from callbacks to and echoes of previous scenes. We learn early on that Jane is the daughter of immigrants, with a deeply religious mother and a father forced to move back to Taiwan to provide for the family. Fiona immigrates to the United States with her mother; she does not know her father. She has been spoiled by her Chinese grandparents but in the U. S. she and her mother — and, later, her stepfather and younger brother — are often scraping by. Fiona and Jane say they are friends, best friends, but they hold each other at arm’s length. The characters reflect, often, on how long it has been since they have spoken.

Without knowing anything about the author’s biography, it’s tempting to read this book as a novelization of her own life. Her first name is Jean, which lines up so nicely with Jane; and all of the chapters about Jane are told in the first person, whereas all the chapters about Fiona are in the third person. Jane is a writer, and I read the chapters about Fiona as written by Jane, in an attempt to understand her missing friend. Even in stories that are Fiona’s alone, Jane always seems to be lurking just offstage, perhaps taking notes.

But you don’t have to read this as autofiction to recognize that Fiona and Jane is ultimately Jane’s story. The novel is bookended by two critical moments in her life: the first, a visit to her father in Taiwan, which ends in a revelation and a mistake that Jane will regret for years; the last, two decades later, when she finds a way to exorcise her guilt and come to terms with both of her parents. Fiona’s life seems more eventful — romantic complications, marriage, career shifts — but it’s Jane I was drawn to. Bereft of Fiona, Jane seems lost and lonely. And Jane cannot move on from the exclusivity of the friendship, even when Fiona seems to have other interests, other priorities, other people who take precedence over Jane:

The strange feeling I’d had earlier—the one I couldn’t place, when Fiona said she and Won had kissed—came over me again. My throat tightened. I’d thought it was jealousy before, and I’d crushed it down inside of me, ashamed. I didn’t want to be jealous of Fiona. Sure, there was plenty to envy about her, but I’d never felt anything close to competition between us. Until tonight. Until I learned she’d kept a secret from me. 

But it wasn’t jealousy. It was the shock of grief, that we didn’t share everything, no matter how much I wanted to believe we could. And now I held my own secret with Won, with Fiona on the outside of it.

At the end of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You the two main characters end arm-in-arm. “If you weren’t my friend, I wouldn’t know who I was,” one says, and the other agrees: “I wouldn’t know who I was either.” That’s how I feel about my besties, too, and how I think they feel about me. Fiona, though? She makes mistakes but she knows who she is, with or without Jane. This isn’t a book about two best friends, not really. It’s a book about two childhood friends who have to figure out their places in each other’s lives when childhood is over.