She even lent me her copy. “Have you read it yet?” she kept saying.
I gave it back unread. Like many of us, I am interested in so many books that it’s hard to fit in all the recommendations.
Now I’ve finally read this luminous novel, published in 1986, and am sorry I waited so long. This gracefully-rendered story of the relationship between an unconventional Mennonite mother and her daughter is as elegant as a prose poem. The spare, rhythmical prose (it seems scannable!) does have a kind of ’80s feeling: it reminds me of the style of other minimalist writers, but her perfect choice of words is unique.
The narrator, Andrea Doria, called Dovie, has mixed feelings about her mother. Dovie sketches childhood memories of her fascination with this strong, obstinate, intense woman: of the words her mother loves scratched in the tobacco dust (they are tobacco farmers); of her swimming fearlessly in the ocean; telling Dovie never to buy from a salesman; and touting her belief that God had nothing to do with the world.
The strong swimming in the sea is typical of the mother, who also frequently volunteers with other Mennonites in disaster areas.
“…my mother’s shoulders are fleshed and rounded, the firm shoulders of a swimmer; and, for this, she is a scandal at family reunions when my Mennonite cousins and aunts sit on the edge of the pool at the Bucks County Park, their prayer caps rucked under strapped white rubber swim caps. With her feet in the water, my mother takes the shape of a hometown mermaid, a renegade one–no dreamer–with short blond hair. “
She also confides in Dovie about love and sex, saying she has had sex with a grandfather, father, and son.
This is astonishing: we see the mother at her freest, most rebellious, and occasionally startling.
The mother’s letters from her friend, Ruth, are among the most influential in her life and keep her mind alive. Ruth escaped from the Mennonite life-style when she finished high school.
When her mother has a stroke, her personality changes entirely. She loses her originality. The letters from Ruth, which keep coming, now mean nothing to her. She even recommends that Dovie go out for cheerleading.
How Dovie deals with this change is a great part of the novel.
It’s an absolutely beautiful book. I should go back and read this novel as a poem. There are many different threads, and I suspect there is a lot of religious symbolism: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? There is the paradox of the beauty of the tobacco and its uselessness; and the farm is located next to a penitentiary. Prisoners work for them.
There is so much here!
The book is out-of-print, but the Graywolf Press edition seems widely available. Mine is a Penguin. And then of course there is always interlibrary loan…