Mrs. Millions and I don’t get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called “Recent Tragic Events” and it looks at the mundane – in this case a blind date – through the lens of tragedy and shock – this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, “Six Feet Under,” and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play’s main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates’ grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly’s shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates’ prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by – get this – a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you’re in Chicago, check it out.
Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
When Sarah Vowell comes to town, she brings with her the oddest bunch of Puritans you’ve ever met. Sometimes cruel, often endearing, highly literate (for a pre-Enlightenment society), occasionally confounding in their contradictions, the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s come to life in Vowell’s latest historical slice of arcane Americana.The Wordy Shipmates reveals Anne Hutchinson as a headstrong Puritan guru who enraged the Puritan leaders by claiming that God spoke directly to her – blasphemy to the Puritans who don’t believe in that kind of revelation. It spotlights Roger Williams as a banished, tormented, confrontational colonist who is “hard to like but easy to love.” The core of the book, however, is John Winthrop, the governor who took the parting sermon of John Cotton in which Cotton tells “these about-to-be-Americans” in inspiring language that “they are God’s new chosen people” and governs the new colony accordingly, helping to sow the seeds of American exceptionalism which would go beyond colonists spreading God’s word to the natives, and would ultimately permeate U.S. foreign policy in the centuries to come.John Winthrop’s own sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” calls on New England to be “as a city upon a hill” – a beacon of righteousness. As Vowell puts it, the “worldview behind that motto – we’re here to help, whether you want our help or not – is the Massachusetts Puritans’ most enduring bequest to the future United States.” But the same sermon also outlines a more humble notion of America. Vowell writes: “Dig deep into its communitarian ethos and it reads more like an America that might have been, an America fervently devoted to the quaint goals of working together and getting along. Of course, this America does exist. It’s called Canada.”Sarah Vowell read this passage to a packed and adoring crowd here in Toronto as part of the recent International Authors Festival. We’re a strange bunch, we Canadians. Virtually every day of the year we keep our national pride under wraps, shying away from overt acts of flag-waving, hooting-and-hollering patriotism. But put us in a theatre in downtown Toronto, bring in an erudite and thoughtful writer, and if she heaps even the slightest praise upon Canada, we’re in heaven. More so if it’s an American doing the praising. To us. Out loud. That “Canada” line brought down the house.Of course that line is an amusing throwaway, but it has a germ of truth at least when it comes to national self-perception. Vowell’s reading at the festival was followed by a lengthy conversation with writer and broadcaster Ian Brown who suggested that America sees itself on a journey, following a visionary course – a destiny, while we Canadians are more concerned with “whether we have enough parsnips in the basement” to get through the long winter.In The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell frequently breaks the narrative to offer some trenchant opinions of how the two halves of the Winthrop sermon have grown further apart over the centuries. For all their rousing talk of America as a beacon on a hill, many leaders have overlooked the more modest ideals that could be drawn from the same sermon. Vowell takes a mallet and smashes the rose-colored glasses through which many people have been gazing back at Ronald Reagan’s terms in office. One of the most vocal co-opters of the “city-on-a-hill” mantra, Reagan’s eloquent Winthropian language and his grandfatherly demeanor masks the treatment (or rather, neglect) of the already-marginalized in America during his watch.A ray of hope, though. The book was written, and the reading was given, before the recent election. Which changes things, I think, as President-elect Obama seems, in these transitional days anyway, to be that rarest of things – a leader who combines reason and pragmatism and a sense of a community pulling together, with spirited language and an inspiring delivery. The beacon on a hill appears to be shining a bit more brightly.Some other Sarah Vowell-isms from the interview:On the almighty buck: At one point interviewer Ian Brown reached for a bottle of water, took a swig, and then uttered the name of the brand. To which Vowell jokingly chided Brown for giving the bottler an unsolicited, unpaid plug, saying “you Canadians will just give it away for free.”On her preoccupation with subcultures: Vowell admitted her lifelong obsession with groups, the more unruly the better. From Goths to Puritans, she’s fascinated by their habits whether that means wearing too much make-up or spreading salvation in colonial Massachusetts.On why U.S. history is more far more interesting than Canadian history: “Canadians are superior human beings,” Vowell said (to huge applause), adding: “and thus nothing ever happens.”On restraint: “I have a policy where I’m trying not to swear,” Vowell told us, “and I open the newspaper in the morning and I’m like a gangsta rapper who stubbed his toe.”On the separation of church and state: “It’s on the books,” Vowell assured us, all the while frustrated that vocal and sometimes powerful groups try to pretend that it’s not.On research: Vowell spent ages sifting through volume after volume of admittedly dull Puritan writing. “I do quote from the juicier bits of Puritan writing for you… and you’re welcome.”On Jon Stewart: Vowell, in addition to her books and contributions to This American Life on NPR, is a frequent guest on the hip late-night circuit, particularly The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She was asked what he was really like. “A six-foot-tall black man,” Vowell quipped. And I thought the camera just added ten pounds! On a serious note, Vowell said that Stewart’s humor is derived from a core of sadness, of frustration with misuse of power.On Pixar: Vowell also made a lasting impression as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. She has a high regard for Pixar, and applauds the animation studio for using “every aspect of the medium for meaning.”On superheroes and their powers: During the Q and A, Vowell was asked by an audience member what her ideal superpower would be. To which she replied: “Always being well-rested.”On meeting me: While waiting in line to have Vowell sign my copy of her latest book, an organizer worked her way through the queue writing each of our names in big block letters on a little yellow post-it notes and sticking them in the books, at the proper spot. When I found myself in front of Sarah Vowell, after exchanging pleasantries, she looked at my name, and, stunned by the unprecedented and unexpected number of Andrews ahead of me in the line, she asked: “Do all Canadians name their sons Andrew?”. We both laughed. “I guess there’s a lot of us,” I quipped, adding: “And I wasn’t even born here!” We both tossed our heads back and laughed some more. She then added, without missing a beat, “But you fit right in.”
Among the core missions of International PEN is “the defense of writers and of freedom of expression around the world.” In the last two decades, as Salman Rushdie has been both its beneficiary and its champion, this mission has become increasingly visible. However, the artistic defense of freedom of expression is a tricky thing; political self-satisfaction can impinge on the creative writer’s various commitments to silence, cunning, and exile, not to mention irony. There have been events in the past where the celebration of PEN’s core mission has seemed out-of-sync with circumstances. (Should we really be congratulating ourselves for mingling on a cruise ship?) And so, on Thursday night, when I headed to the velvet-draped precincts of Joe’s Pub for “Something to Hide: Writers Against the Surveillance State,” I was a bit nervous. I don’t want to be told what a hero I am for drinking my $7 beer, any more than I want to be told that I can do my part for the Global War on Terror by going shopping.I needn’t have worried (except, perhaps, about my own incipient cynicism). Both in its intelligent planning and in the sensitivity and humility of its participants, “Something to Hide” focused attention on victims of the surveillance state, rather than flattering the good conscience of the audience.The key to the evening’s success, I think, was that writers were asked to read from work other than their own. After quick introductions from PEN president Francine Prose and ACLU director Anthony Romero, a surprise guest took the stage: Wallace Shawn. My pleasure at seeing a favorite writer perform quickly faded into absorption in the performance. Shawn delivered a dramatic reading of Acting U.S. Attorney General James B. Comey’s testimony before Congress, in which White House Council Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andrew Card attempt to harass a hospitalized John Ashcroft into signing off on the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Shawn is as passionate and idiosyncratic an actor as he is a playwright, and the reading was surprisingly moving. It was a reminder that, despite the excesses of the last eight years, dedicated civil servants still remain the backbone of our government. (Or remained – Comey resigned shortly after the scene at Ashcroft’s bedside.)The evening’s poets, Chenjerai Hove of Zimbabwe and Irakli Kakabadze of Georgia, recited political poems by friends and colleagues, and perhaps because of the translation, the work itself seemed more strident than beautiful. That said, these are two writers who have felt first-hand the corrosive effects of government surveillance, and their introductory remarks provided a much-needed international context for the evening’s theme.Conceptual artists Hasan Elahi and Jenny Marketou explored the dimensions of surveillance at home. Elahi, who spent time on the FBI terrorist watch list, showed slides from a project in which he keeps the FBI constantly updated on his whereabouts. “If they want to know what I’m doing, that’s fine, but they’re going to know everything. If I go to the toilet, they’re going to go with me.” Marketou read an FBI transcript in which two G-men follow Andy Warhol to New Mexico for the shooting of a porn film. They complain about lascivious dancing cowboys and the lack of character development. Thirty-odd years later, audience laughter at Joe’s Pub was both loud and anxious. La plus ça change…The Hungarian Peter Esterhazy reprised Wednesday’s triumphant appearance at Town Hall, here reading from the great Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal. It’s a testament to Esterhazy’s charisma that his reading, in a language I don’t speak, was more evocative than the reading by his translator that followed. Ingo Schulze of Germany (whose latest novel, New Lives, will be published this fall), read from Through the Looking Glass, making Lewis Carroll sound positively Orwellian.Finally, the evening’s second surprise guest, Deborah Eisenberg wrapped things up with a reading from the Argentine writer Humberto Constantini’s The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis I’ve heard Eisenberg, one of my two or three favorite living American writers, read from her own work before; what was remarkable was the way she inhabited the sentences of another writer. I was half-convinced she’d written the excerpt herself. (I would have the same feeling on Saturday afternoon, hearing her read from Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten).Eisenberg and Shawn have for years been vocal critics of the excesses of the American defense establishment; it speaks to the power of their artistry that each is able to write explicitly about political themes without sacrificing aesthetic power. In the end “Something to Hide” served not only as a primer on the iniquity of state-sponsored surveillance, but as a reminder that art and politics need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, given sufficient humility and tolerance for ambiguity on the part of artists, each can be made to further the interests of the other.
Last month, a group of women between the ages of 25 and 35 got together in Los Angeles to talk about Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. I was one of these women. I loved the idea of getting together to discuss a big book, one that people across the nation were also buying, and reading, and meeting to talk about. It felt like we were participating in a cultural moment–it was like getting a Cabbage Patch Kid in the 1980s. Plus, there would be snacks.
Since the novel is 562 pages, we decided to discuss the book over two meetings–crazy, I know. Because I actually get paid to facilitate a different book club (can you believe that?), I held back from planning questions and discussion points for this new one. I would not let this group become a job. I would not bring a highlighter. However, I did bring one quote, from Garth Risk Hallberg’s review on this very site. To start the meeting off, I read the quote aloud to the others:
It is surely worth mentioning that Franzen writes more persuasively and attentively about the inner life of women than any male American novelist since Henry James.
“Who wrote that?” someone asked.
“What? You don’t think a man can write from a woman’s perspective?”
“Was the reviewer a man or a woman?”
“How does he know?”
“The question isn’t whether a man can write a woman’s perspective, but if Franzen can. Was he successful?”
The responses were mixed to this question. All of us felt Patty Berglund, midway through the novel at least, was a complicated and believable character, but a few of us–myself included–did not buy the conceit of her autobiography. It did not feel as if she had written it; arbitrarily capitalizing words does not render a perspective true! To me it felt half-assed, almost offensive. Why present these words as Patty’s, when they are really the author’s, barely concealing himself? It didn’t seem like a true investigation of a character’s world or her use of language to describe that world.
But I digress. We talked a whole lot about Patty.
“Why did Richard keep saying she was tall? She’s only like 5′ 9″!” (So said our tallest member.)
“Did anyone really imagine her as attractive?”
“When I think female basketball player, I’m unable to imagine a good looking woman.”
What’s interesting to me about an unguided book club is how quickly it dives into content, with only brief exchanges about form. There is analysis, but it’s about the characters. Why did Patty marry Walter? What is the nature of the love between Richard and Walter? What the hell was up with the dirty talk between Joey and Connie? (“That was my favorite part!”) The great fun of these meetings–and perhaps why they’re not particular productive–is that you get to talk about the characters as if they’re real. People describe emotional reactions to the events in the book. They make value judgments. They psychoanalyze the characters–and this inevitably pulls the discussion away from the text. I recall one moment, as we were debating the potential selfishness of the characters, when someone said, “Well, first, we need to define selfishness.” This led us down a thorny but fascinating path, which had little to do with the Berglunds and their problems. In a book club about Freedom, it’s easy to go from a discussion of Walter’s environmentalism to a discussion of overpopulation to a discussion of having babies to a discussion of orgasms to, “What do you think Jonathan Franzen’s lovemaking style is?” No wonder Franzen hemmed and hawed his way to a dis-invitation from Oprah nearly ten years ago! He understood how dangerous a group of women can be.
It turned out, after our first meeting (four hours long, no joke), we were all talked out. Our second meeting was shorter and more subdued. We discussed the ending, and the relative happiness of Patty and Walter. Had anyone changed? Could anyone really change? We discussed the structural and narrative similarities of the first and final sections–was that return to the elevated perspective beautiful, or a cop-out? (My answer? Both.) We talked about whether or not the sections about mountain top removal were sort of interesting or incredibly boring, and how we reacted to real-life details in fiction.
“You think Jonathan Franzen listens to Bright Eyes?”
“Is there a real life version of Richard Katz? I never believed he was actually famous.”
“What the fuck is up with the band name Walnut Surprise?”
“It was so silly!”
“Should have been Walnut Hotel or something.”
“Walnut Surprise sounds sexual, and scatological–like a Joey and Connie thing. Franzen is obsessed with poop.”
In both meetings, we came back to this question of whether or not Freedom is a masterpiece. Why was Jonathan Franzen, out of the many talented and important authors, the anointed one? We all agreed it was pretty great to see a writer on the cover of TIME, but was he truly “the great American novelist”? He is both commercially successful and critically acclaimed, and few can claim that mysterious combination these days. We were saddened, or sobered, by the fact that a woman, at least in the present day, would not be given that title. Everyone agreed with that.
Of course, we spent the last twenty minutes discussing the most important question: “What should we read next?”
Fellow Millions staff writer Janet Potter and I enjoy a lot of the same books, and we were both giddy to read The Secret Place, the fifth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Janet got her paws on it early this summer and I read it in a breathless rush last week so that we could discuss ASAP. What follows is our email correspondence about the novel and French’s work in general.
Janet: I loved The Secret Place. I have been a fan of Tana French since I read In the Woods and The Likeness, but I felt that with Faithful Place and Broken Harbor she was kind of in a rut. Each of her books center on a Dublin homicide detective, and although they’re not strictly a series, each new book’s detective has been a character in a previous book. She established a sort of trademark formula in which the murder case that the detective was working had resonance in their own lives — usually by way of dragging up bad memories. In her first two books this gave the plot more depth than an average whodunit, but in the second two the personal connections to the case seemed overbearing.
The Secret Place seemed to me both like a return to form — in that it was innovative and gripping; and a departure from it — in that she finally dumped the “this case has eerie connections to my personal life but I’m going to keep working it no matter how ill-advised that is” trope. And for this book she bravely took on the world of teenage girls — the murder in question took place at a girls’ boarding school outside Dublin and a group of four friends — Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena — are the chief suspects.
French has said that she would shamelessly hang around bus stops and shopping centers to listen to teenagers talk to each other, and my strongest impression of the book is how she used realistic teenage vernacular to convey enormous complexity. I’m a fan of YA books, but the characters in them are frequently aspirational (unless all the super hot, sensitive, artistically-inclined boys in my high school were hiding somewhere). The girls in The Secret Place are very recognizably obnoxious teenagers, and yet their lives and relationships are intricate and compelling — to the extent that I thought they were all idiots, and at one point or another I thought all of them capable of murder.
I guess I’m not really ending with a question, other than do you agree? And did you like the book?
Edan: I wish I had liked The Secret Place as much as you did! After the first 100 pages, I would have agreed with you–at first, I was compelled by this story of teenage girl friendship and, as always, I found French’s trademark prose lively and surprising, phrases like, “little crunch of a grin” and “the acoustics were all swirl and ricochet.” Although I hadn’t gotten bored of French’s mystery formula, as you had, I was pleased to see her attempt something different in her new book. As you say, it was refreshing that this murder case didn’t hold a too-strong psychological power over its detectives; Detective Stephen Moran’s professional motive (to get him off Cold Cases and onto the Murder Squad by working with the barbed Antoinette Conway) was enough to sustain my interest. I also enjoyed how the narrative switched back and forth between the present investigation, told from Stephen’s first person perspective, and the time leading up to the murder itself, told from the teenage girls’ perspectives. The structure reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which we’ve discussed before; such a sweep backward feels simultaneously magical (we can return to an innocent time!) and foreboding (we know the dead body is just around the bend!) The Secret Place plays the present off the past to provide the reader with a much fuller understanding of this private school and its machinations.
I also enjoyed thinking about how being a teenage girl is a bit like being a detective, for both roles require a near-constant behavioral accommodation in order to get what you want: from a suspect or witness, or from a friend or a teacher. Dang, Tana, that’s good.
Unfortunately, for me, the book falters in its representation of the group of teenage girls that Holly Mackey and her tribe don’t like. The main mean girl, Joanne, and her hangers-on Orla and Gemma, just don’t feel three-dimensional. They never quite emerge from the roles they play, and, unlike Detective Moran, I didn’t fully experience the power, tragedy, and thrill of their constructed selves. After about page 200, I grew bored of the drama between the girls; a lot of it felt repetitive. Likewise, the back-and-forth between Moran and Conway began to feel familiar. I wanted a more swift emotional arc. I wonder, if the book had been more taut, would it have worked for me? Generally, reading this just made me long for the terrific leanness of Dare Me and The Fever by Megan Abbott, two novels about teenage girls, secrets, and darkness.
Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how Tana French didn’t give this book a female victim. I’m glad that The Secret Place doesn’t have a True Detective problem–you know, how its only women are dead or dancing naked. But I also wondered if that’s what made me less invested in the story (credit wendy at dresshead.com). Did I much care who killed Christopher Harper? And was that because he was just some prep school asshole? As horrible as this sounds, is a female victim more valuable and/or dramatic to me? What are your thoughts?
Janet: I hadn’t drawn that connection between the adapto-manipulative behavior of teenage girls and detectives. That’s really fascinating, and I think it’s why those long scenes that are just a detective and one of the girls sitting on opposite sides of an interrogation table are so compelling. French has always relished describing interrogations at length, and goes into a lot of detail as to what’s going on in both character’s heads — how they’re reading the other person, how they’re adapting their behavior to regain control in the conversation — and the results could be likened both to a boxing match or a chess game. The interrogation scene in The Secret Place that involved three detectives and one teenage girl — Stephen, Antoinette, Frank Mackey (the protagonist of Faithful Place), and his daughter Holly — was psychologically complex, unpredictable, and good fun to read; perhaps the ultimate Tana French scene and by far my favorite in this book.
I agree with you that Joanne’s gang was a little two-dimensional, but I opted to think it was intentional. The friendship between our four main girls deepened and strengthened considerably throughout the year, and in the process their interactions with Joanne and her friends seem to bother them less and less. I think the juxtaposition between the two groups shows the change in Holly’s group in starker relief. But is “deepened and strengthened” even the right expression? Frankly, the friendship between the four main girls became so important that it took over their lives, reminiscent of the friends in Tartt’s A Secret History, and seemingly manifested its own supernatural power. Can we talk about that? What did you make of the supernatural elements of this book?
Edan: You’re right, French does relish the interrogation scene, and as I said a few years ago, in my analysis of her first three novels, her books teach you how to be a detective. In The Secret Place, we even get detective mythology: “And, somewhere in a locked back corner detectives think old ways. You take down a predator, whatever bleeds out of it flows into you. Spear a leopard, grow braver and faster. All that St. Kilda’s gloss, that walk through old oak doors like you belong, effortless: I wanted that. I wanted to lick it off my banged-up fists along with my enemy’s blood.” That single passage is enough to reveal Detective Moran’s weak spot: his desire, and inability, to belong. I loved the first interrogations of all eight girls. I loved seeing how each girl acted around the detectives–what a way to characterize! (It also made me wonder what Moran would sniff out in me: a need to be loved, a need to be sexy, a need to disappear…) By the time the book gets to Holly’s final interrogation, though, I wasn’t that interested in the mystery anymore, so it wasn’t as effective.
As for the friendship between Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena, I thought it complex and magical and tough in the way that these friendships sometimes are. Their relationship did get more intense, almost rigorous in its devotion…but then adulthood and sexual desire and natural human secrecy got in its way, which then caused all sorts of problems. The downfall of their group-friendship felt realistic and dramatic and upsetting. I guess I would have liked to see the same complexity brought to Joanne’s circle, too, for certainly they are real young women, and not the paper dolls they pretend to be.
The supernatural stuff delighted but didn’t totally land for me. I think French does it better in Broken Harbor where the secret of the baby monitors and the holes in the wall are revealed to have logical explanations…but something inexplicable and eerie remains unanswerable. French was edging toward the supernatural in that novel, and finally got there in The Secret Place. Unfortunately, the powers of the girls felt a bit unfocused for me, and I wanted them to play a more significant role overall. I mean–there’s their ability to move objects with their minds and stuff, and then there’s Chris’s ghost. I couldn’t connect them–did I miss something? It felt muddled…but I love the idea and I want more of that from French in her next book.
Let’s talk about my favorite topic: gender roles. Moran was the feminine one, and Conway was the masculine one. He admired beauty in all its forms…and she grunted. What did you make of this role swap? Maybe this comes back to my question about French choosing a male victim–who is found covered in flowers, I might add.
Janet: I ignored your earlier question about gender roles (to no avail, it seems), because while there are a lot of interesting gender dynamics, I don’t have a unified theory of what French was trying to do with it. Unless she wasn’t trying to do anything other than shift roles around and see what happens.
Originally I thought the the feminine/masculine, good cap/bad cop dynamic between Stephen and Antoinette was intended to distance them from Rob and Cassie, French’s detective team from In the Woods. In that earlier book, Cassie was the bubbly one whose rookie status on the otherwise all-male detective squad was legitimized by having a male partner. In this book, Stephen is the empathetic rookie and Antoinette is tough as nails, perhaps excessively so (but I guess we’ll get into that in French’s next book).
The murder plot also hinges around gender roles — specifically around the psychology and limitations of female friendship and what happens when a guy starts to unwittingly threaten them (erring on the side of ambiguity to avoid giving too much away here). I agree that Chris, even as the murder victim, feels secondary to the murder plot. Solving the mystery requires digging into the social and emotional dynamic between the girls, and I felt that French was more interested in that process than in the fact that it resulted in uncovering the murderer.
It’s also interesting, then, that Stephen is the one who cracks the case. Antoinette had been there a year earlier and failed. Do you think was intentional? Did the case require Stephen’s, uh, feminine touch? Or is he just the hero of the book?
Edan: I’m also not sure what French was up to with the role reversals. I agree that Chris is secondary to the murder plot–not only to the book’s own untangling of whodunit, but also to the girls themselves and their desires and sense of being threatened. He could have been anyone. And that is a bit shiver-inducing in its own right.
I feel the need to quote this line, which, to me, was the best of the whole book, “Who who whose smell in the air of her room, whose fingerprints all over her friends’ secret places.” It suggests that The Secret Place is not only a bulletin board in the school hallway where girls can leave anonymous messages and pictures and the like, but also…a girl’s private parts. I kind of wish the book had been called The Vagina.
This theory of why Antoinette couldn’t crack the case is intriguing–is it because Stephan could see the world as these teenagers could, connecting with all that they responded to and were repelled by? Perhaps Conway couldn’t adequately solve it because she was a woman in a male-dominated squad, which meant she had to listen to her partner even if she didn’t like his choices, even if she was supposed to be the lead detective on the case. Also, she was somewhat handicapped by her class-rage, unable to see these girls for anything but spoiled rich girls; Stephan, on the other hand, saw the beauty of their privilege, and longed for it himself. He was able to transform his longing into intimacy with these suspects.
Now I want everyone in the comment thread to list French’s novels from their most to least favorite. What do you think, Janet? We can do it too!