Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Random House (New York: 2010).
A dense, rich novel of love not meant to be. Jacob, a young clerk with the Dutch East Indies Company in late 18th century Japan, becomes fascinated with the intelligent Miss Aibagawa, a local midwife whose facial scar has made her an outsider. Interestingly, Jacob isn’t her primary concern. Her point of view takes over when she’s exiled to a prison-like nunnery, from which Jacob would like to save her, but she looks to save herself. These characters stay with you, the prose is gorgeous, and the historical context is immersive and well-researched. We’re left with a resonant sense of the mark which a vivid experience can leave on a life.
For writers: In addition to the strengths already mentioned, writers should pay careful attention to the elasticity in the points of view here. Not only do they shift from one character to another – mostly in third person, sometimes in first – but even within a given point of view, there are shifts in closeness and tone. The central character of Jacob is rendered in third person, but the pov moves fluidly from more distant, ironic narration to close, free indirect style. For example, on the last page before Part Two, we are heartbreakingly close when Jacob realizes he loves Miss Aibagawa as he see her being taken away, and when he leaps the steps and opens his mouth to call out her name, but the last wry words belong to the narrator: “The well-oiled bolt slides home.”
Prose, Francine. Blue Angel. HarperCollins Publishers (New York: 2000).
In honor of International Women’s Day, Francine Prose is an author not to be missed. In Blue Angel, she takes on the point of view of a cynical, aging professor of creative writing in small New England college. Swenson hasn’t published a novel for years, and it’s been even longer since any of his students showed promise. When a pierced, tattooed student in his workshop reveals a rare talent for writing, he’s anxious to help, but also finds himself increasingly obsessed with her. Through a series of missteps, his secure life unravels, culminating in a disastrous sexual harassment hearing. Wickedly funny and fatalistic, and yet with compassion. For writers: Prose manages to be funny without diluting the tension, akin to Jonathan Franzen but less widely known, and makes us sympathize with someone we might condemn if the point of view were reversed. The story within a story by the talented student shows just how seductive good writing can be. Writers should also be sure to check out Prose’s pointed send-up of writers’ workshops – she perfectly captures how painful the bad ones can be.
Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. Penguin Books (New York: 2002).
Lily is haunted by the memory of shooting her mother by accident as a toddler. Her father is thwarted and cruel. When Lily’s black stand-in mother insults a vengeful racist during her attempt to register to vote, Lily springs them both. They escape to a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past, where they stay with three African-American beekeeping sisters and Lily learns about caring, and forgiving her mother and herself. For writers: I like how the author used the bees as an extended metaphor throughout the story. Bees foreshadow the early threats in the plot, but also become a part of what is nurtured by the end, reinforcing the theme of female power and giving the novel a distinctive frame, as well as its memorable title. The title’s allusion to the bees’ secret life invests the women here with one as well.