The Best Book You’ve Never Read

When Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade came out in 1976, it was a Book of the Month Club selection, alongside Judith Guest’s Ordinary People. Yates—who’d achieved career-making acclaim with his first novel, Revolutionary Road, but less success with subsequent ones—was excited about his expanded readership. But he also called up his editor Sam Lawrence to express his worry that Delacorte planned to market the novel, which follows two sisters from the 1930s to the 1970s, as a “woman’s book.”
Yates was not the first or last male novelist (see also: Franzen) to worry that his work would be diminished by its association with women. Even today, women’s fiction remains a category in publishing—my own books are sometimes labeled that way—and I often wonder what it means. Is it a book that features women? Is it anything I write, because I’m a woman?

I was working on my new “woman’s book,” Dual Citizens, about two sisters and their complicated, life-long bond, when a friend suggested I read The Easter Parade. Like most people, the only Yates I’d read was Revolutionary Road. In the decades since his death in 1992, Revolutionary Road has kept Yates’s reputation alive; according to NPD BookScan, it has sold 483,000 copies in paperback since 2004, with over half of that coming after the release of the film version in 2008. The Easter Parade, by contrast, has sold just more than 10,000 copies in paperback since 2004.
It deserves more readers. I fell in love with it from the dark, once-upon-a-time cadence of its opening sentence: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” If this is a woman’s book, Yates is clear that it won’t be a light-hearted one. Emily and Sarah Grimes grow up with their alcoholic, self-deluding mother, Pookie, in a series of rental homes they can’t afford. Their father, who lives in New York City, is well-intentioned but distant, a copy-man at a newspaper who didn’t amount to much and knows it. The three women form an awkward triad, often struggling to find anything to talk about, yet forever implicated in each other’s lives.
Things look promising when Sarah meets a handsome, genteel neighbor, Tony Wilson. At the start of their courtship, he and Sarah dress up in their finest clothes, walk in the Easter Parade, and are photographed for the rotogravure section of the New York Times. But after this brief high point, the relationship goes precipitously downhill: Tony and Sarah have three children and descend into dysfunctional family life. They drink to excess; Sarah is isolated, her occasional attempts at writing going nowhere; Tony beats her.
Marriage is no happily-ever-after conclusion—it’s a prison that the prisoner has to pretend to enjoy. Little wonder that Emily mistrusts it. When Sarah tells Emily to marry one of her boyfriends, Emily snaps, “‘You’re always telling me to marry people, Sarah. You say that about every man I bring out here. Is marriage supposed to be the answer to everything?’ Sarah looked hurt. ‘It’s the answer to an awful lot of things.’”
They’re both wrong. Emily takes a different path from her sister; smart and studious, she attends Barnard, later working at magazines and in advertising. She has affairs with a number of men, most of them awful. (While I wouldn’t exactly call Yates a comic writer, Emily’s boyfriends star in a number of bleakly hilarious scenes.) Yates narrates Emily’s sexual experiences with frankness, her desire acknowledged without prudishness, and the issues that come along—one of her lovers is impotent, another is bisexual—are treated as matters of fact. She has two abortions, which Yates, again, presents without judgment. For a while she works on an essay about her experiences, and when she puts it away, it’s not because she’s traumatized or fearful of writing about abortion but because she can see, with her editor’s “gelid eye,” that the writing isn’t very good.


Yates based Emily in part on Natalie Bowen, a friend/girlfriend who worked as an editor at Putnam’s, and in part on himself. His own mother, Dookie, shared Pookie’s artistic ambitions and alcoholism, and he and his sister Ruth grew up in an environment that exactly tracks Sarah and Emily’s. The novel remains autobiographical throughout, from Sarah’s move to an under-maintained family estate on Long Island to Pookie’s eventual institutionalization.
In middle-age Emily, Yates’s stand-in, meets Jack Flanders, a poet who also seems a stand-in for Yates, animating a love affair between two versions of the same person. Flanders asks her to accompany him to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he’s been invited to teach for two years. As Jack struggles to work and teach—evoking Yates’s own experience at Iowa, when experimental writers like the Chilean novelist José Donoso competed with traditional realists like himself—he traps Emily in the web of his narcissism and despair. Insisting on writing in the main room of the house, he tells her, “I like being able to look up and see you. Moving in and out of the kitchen, hauling the vacuum cleaner.”
Emily tries to write too, but can’t, and Yates’s portrait of a woman stifled by male ego is so acute here. When she turns down Jack’s proposal of marriage and family and goes back to New York alone, it seems an excellent choice, no matter what the consequences might be.
Of course the consequences, Yates being a poet of life’s everyday brutality, are not good. Emily suffers just as much as Sarah does; her independent life is every bit as poisonous as Sarah’s housebound one. When her nephew Peter tells her admiringly, “You’ve always struck me as the original liberated woman,” the observation lands grimly and without solace.
The Easter Parade covers 40 years of massive social changes in the lives of women, but it offers almost no lengthy descriptions of the era or deliberations on what these changes mean. Instead Yates presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes, each one a masterpiece of gesture and detail. Late in life Sarah and Emily meet in a coffee shop to discuss the possibility of Sarah leaving Tony. In the middle of the scene, the narrative gaze travels to a booth across the aisle, where “a couple of young lovers were murmuring, side by side, the girl’s fingers tracing little elliptical patterns on the inner thigh of the boy’s tight, well-faded blue jeans.” It’s a tiny but electric shock of youthful sensuality that contrasts sharply with the sisters’ tense conversation. Sarah and Emily are alone together, while sex and pleasure sit nearby, almost close enough to touch.

The Easter Parade may be harsh in the fates it hands to Sarah and Emily, but it’s also even-handed in its treatment of them, two women who straddle the radical shifts of the twentieth century and discover that any path they might take is vexed with difficulty. And though neither of them makes good on their desire to write, Yates never treats their aspirations as foolish. Like the Grimes sisters, the characters in my novel have artistic ambitions that are hard to realize, and in The Easter Parade’s troubled women I found both historical connection and timeless resonance.

Yates himself was hardly a feminist. As Blake Bailey outlines in his well-wrought and wildly depressing biography, A Tragic Honesty, Yates was old-fashioned in his aesthetic and political values, and he was a pretty bad husband too. Yet he also lived his life among women—first his mother and sister, then his two wives and three daughters and assorted girlfriends—and from the evidence he understood a great deal about their lives. I think The Easter Parade is an inadvertent feminist classic, a woman’s book in the best possible meaning of that fraught term.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: ASTERISK.

Sad, Strange Brilliance: On Tove Jansson and Moomin

1.
Probably mine was the only Swedish-New Mexican family in the Canadian suburb where I grew up, the only house where the shelves were cluttered with Scandinavian gnomes and Hopi kachina dolls. We lived far from any relatives, and our nuclear family unit formed a country all our own, with a specific culture, language, and mores. My father was a professor and my mother had been a teacher, so our country’s currency was books. We liked nerd humor. Sometimes we spoke in fake German accents for no reason. We were odd.

I may have been the oddest. In a neighborhood dominated by youth soccer and hockey leagues, I was a delicate child who flinched at every revolution of the tether ball, with a vocabulary not so much precocious as inappropriate to the time and place. For a while, I decided it would be cool to have a signature oath, something I read in a book, so I took to exclaiming “Blood and bones!” whenever the occasion seemed to call for it. My best friend, who managed to be smart without geekiness, withstood this for exactly one day before sighing wearily, “Please stop that.”

But I couldn’t stop — as soon I dropped the oath, I’d come up with some other weird behavior. I was too used to taking my cues from books. When I read Heidi, for example, I felt an electric surge of recognition. Not because of her pious personality or love of nature, but because Heidi, gone to live with a rich family far from home, squirrels away white dinner rolls in her room to bring back to her grandfather, not realizing they’ll grow stale before she can return to him. The perplexed family opens her closet one day to discover a cache of old bread on the floor.

I was absolutely the kind of kid who would hide stale dinner rolls in her room.

Childhood, as I knew it, was rife with secrecy and weirdness, with actions that made sense to you but not anybody else. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Moomin.

2.
Tove Jansson, who created Moomin, understood that secrecy and strangeness are endemic to childhood. She was born in Helsinki, the daughter of Swedish-speaking parents, a sculptor father and an illustrator mother. In the recently re-published Sculptor’s Daughter, a charmingly oddball collection of childhood memories, Jansson describes idyllic summers spent on an island in the Gulf of Finland while her parents made art and entertained a ragtag string of companions — a geologist; a woman who tried to decoratively re-tile their front steps, rendering them unusable; a monkey named Poppolino. The child Tove roamed around the island by herself, always independent, apparently never lonely. At one point, she took to following the geologist as he worked, unnerving his girlfriend, who turned around and yelled at the child to go home. Tove didn’t care, and kept following until she and the girlfriend had an argument: “I went a little closer and humiliated her by saying the most terrible thing of all: amateur! You’re an amateur! You’re not a real artist!”

To be a real artist was to Jansson the most important, the only, thing. As an adult, after art school, she drew political cartoons for a number of places, most notably the satirical, anti-fascist magazine Garm. In these cartoons, she sometimes drew little trolls in the margins or by her signature, creatures that evolved into a series of children’s characters called Moomins. The Moomintroll family featured first in a series of books, then in a comic strip that ran in newspapers; both were wildly popular. The books became bestsellers in Finland and the U.K., bringing Jansson — who spent much of her life living on a remote island with her companion the artist Tuulikki Pietilä — an income that didn’t deter her from continuing to work feverishly.

The Moomins remain especially popular in Finland, where it is a matter of national identity (some Finnair planes have Moomin characters painted on them) and in Japan (my brother just bought me some Moomin T-shirts at Uniqlo). In North America, though still popular, the Moomin books never attained quite the same reach. I’m sure that I was the only kid in my neighbourhood reading the books, and I still come across many people who’ve never heard of them at all.

Jansson would be 100 years old this year, and a flood of publications is coming forth to commemorate the anniversary. In addition to Sculptor’s Daughter, there is a breathlessly appreciative, slightly jumbled biography by Boel Westin. The Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly has been issuing the comic strip versions of Moomin in beautiful new editions, and New York Review Books has been republishing her acute, surprising, adult fiction. Jansson was far from forgotten, but the breadth of her achievement is now clearer than it has ever been before.

3.
Moomin is called a troll, but he looks like a hippopotamus that can walk on its hind legs. He is pale, with no special powers or attributes. He lives in Moomin Valley with a family evidently modeled on Jansson’s own — creative, eccentric, welcoming to strangers. Moominpappa is kind but self-involved, forever preoccupied with writing his memoirs or a novel. Moominmamma is unflappably warm, always rustling up meals and producing snacks and tummy powder from her handbag. An assortment of creatures fills out the cast, some semi-realistic, others truly strange, like the Hattifatteners, mute, wordless white beings that look a bit like ambulatory mushrooms. Some of the characters have edgy qualities through which Jansson’s leftist leanings and wry sense of humor can be discerned. Moomin’s close friend Snufkin is an anti-establishment nomad who disdains all possessions except his pipe and hat. Hemulens are self-absorbed depressives, and even the male ones wear dresses. There is a philosopher muskrat who makes a study of unnecessary things.

The universe of Moomin is sometimes magical, with a hobgoblin hat that can change Moomin into an ugly version of himself, but it is also cozy, a paracosm where danger is slight and the next meal of pancakes is never far away. Yet despite the hominess, the key feature of the Moomin books is a thrumming note of melancholy. Wistfulness colors many of the scenes, as well as a sense of restlessness that undercuts the security of the family, the valley, the home. Moomin is often struck with sad-ish feelings that he can’t define. Finn Family Moomintroll captures a typical moment this way: “It was the end of August — the time when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden. Moomin Wood was full of glow-worms, and the sea was disturbed. There was expectation and a certain sadness in the air, and the harvest moon came up huge and yellow. Moomintroll had always liked those last weeks of summer most, but he didn’t really know why.”

Maybe it seems funny to praise a series of children’s books for their melancholy. But when I think about what drew me to Moomin, I’m sure it was this sense that even a lovely summer night can have a certain sadness in the air. Classic children’s books like Charlotte’s Web or Where the Red Fern Grows help acquaint children with the sorrows that exist in life. But the sadness in the Moomin universe is more a facet of temperament than event; the books presume that children are already familiar with it, and locate it within themselves.

We say the phrase “a happy childhood” as if it’s a given, as if we understand it to be the most desirable thing. But the richly varied experiences of childhood, even at their most positive, must be more complicated than happiness. Moomin is a reasonably happy character — he’s not hapless or neurotic, at least — but his emotions range across a complex moodscape where happiness, as a label, doesn’t necessarily apply. What Moomin feels is often inarticulated; not quite sadness or happiness, but rather childhood emotions and moods that are not categorized or perhaps even nameable by adult language. When he comes across a giant ruby stolen by two tiny mice-creatures and hidden in their suitcase (a combination of the criminal, the magical, and the ordinary that is typical of Jansson), it strikes him as both beautiful and fearsome; “crimson flames shot out of its heart and it seemed like a great black tulip with stamens of fire.” Moomin first wishes his friend Snufkin could see it. And then “he stood there a long, long time while time grew weary and his thoughts were very big.”

Time grew weary and his thoughts were very big. It is a large world to experience and Moomin, like many children, has neither the language nor the perception to understand it completely. Sometimes they don’t know why they like things, or why they don’t. Sometimes they are overwhelmed. The Moomin books acknowledge this state without disparaging it or explaining it away. It simply exists. In her 1961 essay, “The Deceitful Writer of Children’s Books,” Jansson wrote that “the immature reader is often spellbound by what is unspoken and disguised. This risky but meaningful undercurrent is not incompatible with the child’s own inaccessible sense of mystery, tenderness, and cruelty. And fear.” In Moomin, I didn’t stumble upon a strange new universe; I found an atmosphere that matched the strangeness I already felt inside.

4.
Jansson, who lived to be 86, produced many non-Moomin stories, as well as paintings, drawings, and other artwork. She also wrote adult novels, the best of which are The Summer Book and The True Deceiver. Not coincidentally, the two books have a great deal in common — both center around a relationship between an older woman and a younger one that is intricate and anti-sentimental. And both are infused with landscape, an island in summer in one, a small town in winter in the other.

The Summer Book is, I think, a perfect novel. The plot is simple to nonexistent: a six-year-old girl named Sophia spends the summer with her grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland. They wander about the island, play games, and have occasional spats. We learn in almost casual asides that Sophia’s mother has recently died, and her father seems to spend most of his time sleeping. The girl and her grandmother have only each other, but there is nothing saccharine about their bond. Amid the quiet descriptions of nature are conversations that hint at philosophical, religious, and emotional truths. At one point they get into an argument about Heaven, genuinely furious with another. In another scene, Sophia wants to play a game in which she calls the grandmother Mama and grandmother calls her Dear Child; the grandmother changes the subject. As Kathryn Davis points out in her introduction to the NYRB edition, Jansson wrote the novel in 1972, at the age of 60, a year after her own beloved mother had died, so she seems to have placed herself in the positions of both older woman and bereft child, each facing death in her own way. That The Summer Book feels simultaneously idyllic and sad — that it has moments of earthy humor (the grandmother teaches Sophia a song about cow shit) renders it very much a piece with the Moomin books.

The female dyad in The True Deceiver is darker and weirder. In a remote, wintry village, a reclusive children’s book artist, Anna, takes in — or is taken in by — a wolvish younger woman named Kati. As with The Summer Book, both women seem to have sprung from Jansson’s life — the older one burdened by her need to respond to her public; the younger woman wild, determined and willful — as if she had sprinkled herself across the pages. The relationship is taut and tension-filled. As you read, it’s almost impossible to get a handle on either character, to know where you stand with them or where they stand with each other, and the result is both infuriating and fascinating. It’s a mystery novel with no corpse or detective, only a palpable, unsettling feeling of criminality. It examines the prices of solitude and community without landing squarely in favor of one or the other. The two women, both outsiders, grow fiercely bound together and, like Moomin, they may not even know why.

Jansson was an artist and a businesswoman, an idealist and a pragmatist. She initially proposed to a man before making her life with a woman. She felt trapped by the success of the Moomin stories at times, but was too practical to walk away from it. She was able to take whatever strangeness she found in her own life and parlay it into stories, endlessly.

5.
Reading is a tactile experience and never more so than in childhood, as our first encounters with covers and spines and illustrations are imprinted on our minds. My own childhood memories of beloved characters are inextricably tied to specific editions of books; Anne Shirley and Bilbo Baggins will forever look as they did the first time I saw them on a jacket. Jansson controlled the way we’d think of Moomins by including her own illustrations from the start, even in the text-dominated stories. She always knew how a Moomin should look, a Snufkin or a Haffenratter. Her strong visual aesthetic and droll humor were also perfectly suited to the rhythm of comic strip panels. They ran for years in a Swedish newspaper to which my father subscribed; he cut them out, translated them, and pasted them into a binder to me, forming my very own Moomin book, which to this day is probably my favorite gift ever.

These comic strip versions of Moomin are the ones currently being reissued by Drawn and Quarterly Books, a Canadian publisher. Of these, my favorite is called Moomin Builds a House. (It’s about Moomin building a house. Jansson liked directness in titles.) As a host of visitors descends upon his home, Moomin decides to build a sort of cottage out in the woods as an escape. One of the visitors to it is a tiny, obnoxious girl named Little My who plays Lucy to Moomin’s Charlie Brown. She torments him constantly, though in the end, the Moomin universe being what it is, she also helps him out.

Moomin’s house turns out rickety, slanted, hopelessly askew. I wanted one just like it. Inspired, I asked my dad, who was going out to run errands, to bring back a bunch of planks from the hardware store (I guess I meant 2 x 4s? I had no idea what I was talking about) so I could build my own house in our back yard. I was pretty sure I could do it — how hard could it be to nail some planks together into a house? If Moomin could make it happen, so could I.

“Okay,” he said absentmindedly. The planks did not materialize.

So another plan was foiled, just as it had been when I cut up some of my mother’s clothes to make myself a dress with puffed sleeves (see: Anne of Green Gables) and got in trouble. I never made a house. Instead, I used a series of available neighborhood hiding spots. There was a large bush in front of some townhouses down the street that I liked to crawl under. In retrospect, I wonder what the neighbors thought, seeing me dive into their landscaping, but it was Canada, and everybody was too nice to say anything. I sometimes hung out next to some giant boulders in the park across the street. My world was the suburbs, not the Finnish archipelago, and I can’t say it held the same loveliness as Jansson’s own childhood. But I worked with what I had.

I needed the bush and the boulders for the same reason Moomin needed a house: to have a place of my own, to meander inside my own head and see what I could find there. Moomin likes his home, his parents, and his friends, but he sometimes leaves them behind, because “a discovery (next to Mysterious Paths, Bathing and Secrets) was what he liked most of all.” Like the children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Secret Garden and many other books, Moomin’s adventures often begin with a secret place — a cave; a spot by a stream; the house he builds — that only he knows about, a knowledge that feels powerful to him, though he usually winds up sharing it with the rest of the community in the end.

The secret places in children’s books don’t just make children feel special; they make them feel recognized as people, layered and large and complex enough to hold something hidden inside. Perhaps, too, they represent a part of the self that is drawn to strangeness and ambiguity, to unnameable emotions and unrealistic goals, but can be lost as we grow to understand the world better; a part we forget when we have to grow up.

In Comet in Moominland — another direct title — a cave discovered by Moomin and his friends saves his family from what seems like imminent apocalypse. As the seas dry up and creatures flee the valley and a comet nears the earth, the Moomins and their friends hunker down inside it: “They thought everything had been burnt up or smashed to atoms when the comet came down, and that their cave was the only thing left in the world.” What I love is that even once the comet passes, they don’t rush to leave the cave to see what has happened outside. Instead, they stay there together, listening to the silence, not at all worried by the things they don’t yet know.

A Year in Reading: Alix Ohlin

2012 was the year of Edward St. Aubyn for me. I started reading his Patrick Melrose novels (the first four of which were published in a collected edition by Picador in January) and couldn’t stop. The series follows Patrick from his privileged, abusive childhood in France through a drug-saturated trip into the abyss in New York City to his first faltering steps towards adulthood in England. The prose is brutal, elegant, acidly funny. No one is spared — not Patrick’s selfish, weak-willed parents, not even his pitiful childhood self. Although the novels sketch a corrosive portrait of life among England’s upper class, the affections and failures they present also feel universal. I don’t think I’ve ever read books so utterly lacking in sentiment, and yet so completely heartbreaking.

Other books I read and enjoyed this year include Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, a caustic, unrelenting look at failure, featuring an ill-fated parrot; Kevin Young’s wide-ranging, beautifully written book of cultural criticism, The Grey Album; Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, as fresh and funny on American expat life in Paris as it must have been when it was first published in 1958; and Doppler, a brief sort-of-comic parable by the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, about a man who, after getting hit on the head, decides to live in the woods and hang out with a moose named Bongo.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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