Getting Out of Her Own Skin: The Millions Interviews Nancy Pearl

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Fans of Nancy Pearl know her as many things—renowned librarian and former executive director of the Washington Center for the Book, author of the Book Lust/Book Crush reader recommendation series, originator of the One City One Book initiative, and featured books reviewer for NPR’s Morning Edition. Now, readers can experience Pearl’s love for the written word in an entirely new way: she’s written her first novel, George & Lizzie, out this week.

Pearl’s debut revolves around the two titular characters, who embody temperamental opposites and yet find themselves falling in love. George comes from a loving childhood and approaches his adulthood, and marriage to Lizzie, with the same intense affection and forgiveness modeled in his family. Lizzie’s own history is one riddled with cruel rejections, starting with her parents, Lydia and Mendel, and evolving into a self-loathing that lingers well into her adult life. Even as George’s love continues to deepen for Lizzie, her sexual history—particularly a time in her life she labels as the Great Game—leaves her burdened with a shame that limits her ability to give and accept true intimacy. As readers move further into George and Lizzie’s story, Pearl asks us to consider the odds of love triumphing where self-love never existed.

George and Lizzie’s story remains true to Pearl’s own self-professed reading preferences: description and exploration of the characters drives the plot. George & Lizzie achieves this through vignettes that circle back across the timeline of the narrative, with each separate piece united by Pearl’s ability to recognize humor in even the most devastating of circumstances. I spoke with Pearl about her new novel and her fascination with the stories people have to tell, whether in literature or in life.

The Millions: George & Lizzie provides a unique narrative structure—scenes unfold as vignettes, remembrances, or something akin almost to diary entries told in third-person. What led you to choose this type of structure for your novel?

Nancy Pearl: That happened accidentally. First of all, I wanted to write a novel that I would love. I was going through a time when my favorite authors weren’t writing fast enough for me and I needed more books that were smart and funny and that was what compelled me to take these characters I’d been thinking about for a long time and start writing about them. And so I would sit down and I would just write a section of their lives, whatever was at the forefront of my mind. I came to see it as snapshots of their lives at different times. Even the chapter headings were just notes for myself. I would save them and remember what was in that particular section. I’m not naive enough to not know that I was writing a novel, but my motivation wasn’t to get published but really that I wanted to spend more time with the people in my story.

The order of the book and the back and forth was even more random than it is now in the sense that, when I submitted the book for publication, it was in the order that I wrote the chapters. And so you might read the results of the Great Game before you knew what the Great Game was. But my wonderful editor at Touchstone, Tara Parsons, spoke with me about the George and Lizzie plot arc, and then we fit everything else around that.

See, plot is not that important to me. I think what’s always important to me in life and the books I read are the people involved. I could never write a mystery, for example. It’s always about exploring the characters and, for me, it’s the characters that need to stand out. And a sense of humor. I think in all my favorite books, characters are the main focus and I want the plot to arrive out of the characters, rather than having the characters live within a plot that’s been devised.

TM: So let’s talk about the Great Game.  Lizzie’s obsession with her ex-boyfriend, Jack McConaghey, is a strong source for her own self-loathing. She can’t seem to move past her belief that his love for her was erased by her revelation of the Great Game, where she slept with the starting members of her high school football team. Which aspects of female sexuality did you want to explore through Lizzie’s story?

NP: I think society has these morés set up for teenage girls, especially. And to break those taboos can really cause you to doubt yourself and to not forgive yourself. It’s interesting that both things she can’t forgive herself for have to do with her sexuality. The fact that Jack leaves and doesn’t say why gives her added reason to go back and not forgive herself. She also never tells George about this part of her sexual history. 

TM: Lizzie’s character feels very much halted in her adolescence—that stage where we begin to consider complex and ambiguous concepts, like love, truth, and identity—three issues that Lizzie struggles with throughout the entire book. Lizzie’s conceptualizations of these are categorical—You love or you don’t. You are good or you are worthless. You are honest or you are a liar. And it’s this style of thinking that limits Lizzie’s engagement with life. What interested you in creating a character with this form of primary struggle?  

NP: I should preface by saying that in many ways this novel was my discovering George and Lizzie rather than my inventing them, so it almost seems like they really existed. I know I made them up, but it seemed throughout the whole process that they were real people and I was just uncovering things about them. I absolutely see that immaturity in Lizzie—there’s a point in the novel where George comments that Lizzie has the emotional age of a 13-year-old and Lizzie agrees, as do I. It wasn’t that I sat down and tried to figure out who Lizzie was—I mean there were things that I had to figure out, like her parents—but it just seemed so natural for who I saw Lizzie as that she would be stuck in that period, partly because of the Great Game.

Maybe this is the place to say this novel is not autobiographical.

TM: Yes, unfortunately there’s this assumption that any time a woman writes a novel where a female protagonist engages in risky sexual practices or experiences some form of trauma that it must be autobiographical.

NP: Lizzie’s behavior doesn’t come from a story someone told me. The Great Game is just something I imagined someone like Lizzie might do. The hard part having to do with that—I mean my editor kept saying “Why did she do it?” and I had to figure that out, but I also had to figure out how to tell that part of Lizzie’s story. Being a writer, you have ideas in your head and put them on paper and they seem so stilted. I describe myself as a very critical reader of the books I read, and I feel I was even harder on myself as a writer.

TM: Lizzie, who begins the novel as a high school upperclassman and ends it as a woman we assume is in her late 20s, is never clearly described. Given that these times in a woman’s life are especially riddled with doubts about physical appearance, I found it very interesting as a reader that Lizzie’s physical self is never a point of concern for her. Her self-criticism stems from flaws she sees in her character, especially due to the Great Game—why did you want to have your female protagonist so comfortable in her skin and so uncomfortable in her self?

NP: I think it was something that I discovered. I didn’t describe Lizzie because I really wanted readers to make their own picture of her. It seemed like I couldn’t have this one character who is so wrecked emotionally and feeling terribly about her body. I wanted to give her a break. In most of my own reading, I don’t care how characters look, I care about how they feel.

TM: Lizzie’s parents, Lydia and Mendel, are psychologists who ascribe to the Behaviorist approach focusing on reinforcement and punishment and they take this to an extreme in their own parenting of Lizzie, which is cold and distant. Was your choice for her parents to be Behaviorists just reflective of the popular ideas at the time the novel was set, or do you have a viewpoint on this particular field of therapy?

NP: My husband is an academic psychologist. But he’s neither a Behaviorist nor a Freudian. He’s a Humanistic-Transpersonal psychologist. You get a good sense of him from George. The Dr. Kallikow that influences George reflects much of Joe, my husband. Though Joe does not wear earth shoes. Or a beret.

I knew right away that Lydia and Mendel would be academic psychologists. I wanted Lizzie to have an unhappy childhood, but not the typical unhappy experience. I didn’t want there to be physical abuse or poverty—I wanted this unhappiness directly attributable to her parents. In the beginning I considered having them be Freudians, but I thought that’s such a cliché: such a large part of our daily existence in our culture acknowledges Freudian issues. Once I decided that, Behaviorists seemed the next best option.

And there’s no room in Lydia and Mendel’s relationship for Lizzie. That’s why I did that entire background for Lizzie’s family tree. When Tara, my editor, got the manuscript I wondered if she’d like it to be taken out, but I feel George and Lizzie’s story needs this backdrop, especially Lizzie’s.

That part was fun to write too, because it was entirely invented. That whole thing about Minsk and Pinsk—all of those things were a lot of fun. Some chapters were much harder to write.

TM: Which were harder to write?  

NP: I mean everything is hard—I have trouble sitting down to write. I don’t have a place to write besides my dining room table and it’s hard because I see things to do in the house, so I would go to the library. They have a quiet room there with a shelf going around it at computer height. Two hours and that was it. I’d have my Diet Pepsi, turn off Internet access, write for two hours, and then go home.

I’ve also been a morning walker for a long time and basically go for a long walk—6 miles or so—every morning. I stop halfway to get a Starbucks tea and I continue my walk. It’s a lovely ritual and George and Lizzie would always be percolating in the background. I walk to the University of Washington campus and on the way back I walk down a street with lots of fraternity and sorority houses. As I walk I’ll think about different things, like what my life would have been like if I’d joined a sorority at University of Michigan, or what if I’d married this guy I dated when I was a junior. When I was stuck on something or couldn’t figure something out, the answer would frequently come to me on my walk, even though I wasn’t concentrating on the characters or the problem I was stuck on in the novel. I’d smell bacon cooking and think, oh, Elaine—maybe that’s her favorite breakfast. Everything just related back to my characters.

TM: Almost 20 years ago, you began the movement that became One City One Book through your work as Executive Director at the Washington Center for the Book. What other initiatives do you hope to see realized for America’s (and/or the world’s) readers in the near or distant future?

NP: I had this life-changing experience in Bosnia where the cultural attaché with the U.S. embassy there invited me to teach teachers how to lead book discussions—this was about four years ago. In Bosnia I saw how powerful books could be to bring people together to talk about important things like identity and how a book could help people think about their lives in a different way. That was my motivation when we developed One City One Book. I wanted to get people who might not think they have anything in common with each other to see that common humanity. Bosnia was an amazing place to see Serbs and Muslims coming together and finding out that they share many things—they are both mothers or that both sets of parents are mixed ethnicities, for example, and that linked them despite the fact that one was a Serb and one was a Muslim and they had the war behind and between them.

I think reading is such a wonderful tool to develop empathy. We spend so much of our time in our own skins and we just think about our mind and our body, yet when we’re reading we are experiencing the lives of other characters and I think that freedom—that escape from ourselves—is the beginning of developing empathy.

TM: Are you working on another novel already?

NP: No, I have this obligatory novel that I wrote when I was 18—the kind people write when they want to be writers and are unhappy, which I definitely was at age 18. I read some of it recently and it was painful. It was just so earnest, there was no leavening in it. I mean, you could just see who I was as an 18-year-old. The little bit of the manuscript that I managed to read reminded me of interesting things I’d forgotten about that I’d put into that novel. It was also very stream-of-consciousness, which is quite different from George & Lizzie.

I did start writing a short story about Maverick, Lizzie’s boyfriend her junior year of high school, as he turns 50. I don’t know if he becomes a sports commentator—I think he has a sports podcast instead. But for me, it’s always going to be that same narrative voice—that close third person narrator. I don’t know if I can access another voice, or if it’s always going to be this way.

I mean, I started out in elementary and certainly high school and college writing poetry. I always defined myself as a writer. I thought I would be a writer and when I was in my 30s all of the lines that started to come to me as poetry started coming to me as prose instead. I wrote a short story that was published by Redbook in 1980 and they said they loved that story and “please send us all your writing.” I did just that, but they said although they loved it, my writing was too depressing for their readers, and then I just sort of stopped writing and I didn’t start again until I began George & Lizzie.

TM: There are many literary references in the book—as you wrote George & Lizzie, did you have any beloved novels in mind that you wanted to use in representing your characters?

NP: It was really hard to narrow it down to which book Lizzie would be reading when she met Marla—it was easy to give George books, but with Lizzie there’s so many other books I wish I could have included and have her reading. I have this fantasy of George & Lizzie being illustrated and having a picture of Lizzie’s bookshelves and the Christmas tree of Elaine’s or the family jewelry store in Stillwater.  There are so many smart and funny books I’d like to have included and I’m so glad I included I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  I think Lizzie needed to be a reader. It was something that brought her pleasure when she was a child. That’s what reading did for her and it continues to sustain her, as it does for so many of us, including myself.

In line with Nancy’s love for characters and their stories (and backstories), she’s kindly provided us with a recipe that features in George & Lizzie.

Elaine’s Mandel Bread Recipe
(which she got from her cousin Marilyn)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

4 eggs
1 cup canola oil
3½ to 4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup chopped nuts
Mixture of equal parts cinnamon and sugar, for sprinkling

Beat eggs until foamy. Add rest of ingredients. Divide dough into 4 parts. Make a long roll of each part and put it on a greased baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes.

Slice each roll while still warm. Put back on cookie sheet, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar mixture and bake for 8 minutes or until brown. Then turn over each piece, sprinkle again with cinnamon and sugar, and bake for 8 minutes.

Elaine often adds dried fruit in addition to nuts—cut up dried apricots, cranberries, or raisins. Sometimes she adds part of a package of trail mix.

What Edith Wharton Taught Me about Marriage

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I’d been married five years when I found myself at a point I never thought possible—on the precipice of becoming an unfaithful wife.

My husband and I are high-school sweethearts, and I’ve led the entirety of my adult romantic life (and my adult life for that matter) with him by my side. As a new wife, I viewed the world from a moral high ground where love existed in the simplest terms. I thought of marriage as a seal on the heart, such that a love powerful enough to lead two people into a lifelong commitment could never legitimately fade. Although I knew couples who divorced, sometimes ten or twenty years into their marriage, I saw these ruptures as signs of the couple’s fragility or immaturity rather than evidence that my own perception of romantic partnership might be flawed.

And then I almost became one of those couples, too. Looking back, now fifteen years into my marriage, I can only shake my head at my younger self. I had so much to learn.

My journey as a wife and lover has included several well-loved novels, sought out for escape or nourishment over the years, but it is my shifting perceptions of one story that I feel places my own emotional evolution in stark relief: the classic love triangle in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

I first read The Age of Innocence as a high school senior, when my husband and I began dating. He was a freshman in college. We’d met a few years before in a youth orchestra (I played the oboe, he played percussion), but despite mutual interest our courtship had stalled until he called one day months later and invited me, of all things, to a band concert.

It was at the height of my own heady teenage love that I discovered Wharton’s story of Newland Archer and his marriage to one woman despite his love for another. Not surprisingly, the tale struck me then as a tragedy. My young and untested heart saw the story in terms of missed opportunities and romantic foreclosures. I was angered, in that first reading, by Newland’s choice to marry May despite his knowledge that he did not truly love her the way he loved May’s exotic cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. In a scene several weeks before his wedding to May, Newland confesses his feelings to Ellen, only to immediately retreat back into the safety of his engagement to May.
“May guessed the truth,” he said. “There is another woman—but not the one she thinks.”

Ellen Olenska made no answer, and did not move. After a moment he sat down beside her, and, taking her hand, softly unclasped it, so that the gloves and fan fell on the sofa between them.

She started up, and freeing herself from him moved away to the other side of the hearth. “Ah, don’t make love to me! Too many people have done that,” she said, frowning.

Archer, changing color, stood up also: it was the bitterest rebuke she could have given him. “I have never made love to you,” he said, “and I never shall. But you are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us.”
I saw Newland Archer as a coward, and May’s choice to say she was pregnant well before she knew it to be true seemed a cheap trick that proved her own selfishness. The only member of this love triangle who I felt had any decency was Countess Olenska, who loved Newland and yet resisted his affections in order to avoid harming her cousin. Naturally, the end of the novel where we find the widowed Newland eschewing the opportunity to see Ellen again annoyed me even further, and confirmed my opinion at the time that Newland was incapable of any form of brave passion.
It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.

At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.
My take on this classic tale remained set throughout the next several years of my relationship with my future husband. We developed a strong and deep connection with each other as we pursued our undergraduate studies, eventually finding ourselves as newlyweds in our early twenties at the beginning of graduate school and our adult lives together. I was decidedly brash as a young spouse—and desperately in love.

At my bridal shower, I remember a family friend, herself married some forty years, wished my husband and I great luck in our marriage. Although I cringe now to recall it, my 20-something-self responded with, “Oh, we won’t need luck,” a sentiment I sincerely believed. Unlike Newland, my husband and I were marrying with a passionate love as our foundation and with no one competing for our affections. I still thought of love as a stable and intractable force—once found, it would never leave. My retort brought what I thought was a smug smile to my family friend’s face and I felt disappointed by her critical view of marriage. Now, though, I see her advice and her smile for what it was: Wisdom.

Five years into married life and ten years into our relationship, my husband and I hit an impasse. As anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship can attest, happy couplings erode slowly over time, so slowly that you can’t see the disintegration until one day you find yourself crying into your cereal and wondering why your husband seems to dislike you so much. It was this period of my marriage that marked my second reading of Newland, May, and Countess Olenska’s love triangle. It was also the first time I realized I was capable of cheating on my husband.

The causes of our unraveling marriage are difficult to identify even now, years later and in a much more solid and loving place. In general, I believe it was the usual suspects: criticism, entitlement, and laziness. On both of our parts. Regardless of the catalyst, the facts remain that I was a young married woman who’d begun to recognize that perhaps my husband was not the only source of affection. Perhaps he wasn’t ‘the one’ for the rest of my life.

It was a scary prospect for me, but I also found myself invigorated. Although my options for potential new partners were not exactly manifold, I found myself fantasizing about different men in my life who I felt might provide the emotional love I no longer experienced in my marriage. And of course, in reading The Age of Innocence again, my views of Newland were entirely changed. My disdain was replaced with a whole-hearted empathy for him. I saw Newland as a man flailing in a loveless marriage while another pathway for real affection remained just out of his reach. It’s not going too far to say that I identified with Newland on this second read. Although I hadn’t secured a new pathway for love, I had accepted its possibility and that, if presented with the option, I would likely pursue it.
Archer choked with the sense of wasted minutes and vain words.

“Then what, exactly, is your plan for us?” he asked.

“For us? But there’s no us in that sense! We’re near each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we can be ourselves. Otherwise we’re only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska’s cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer’s wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust them.”

“Ah, I’m beyond that,” he groaned.

“No, you’re not! You’ve never been beyond. And I have,” she said, in a strange voice, “and I know what it looks like there.”

He sat silent, dazed with inarticulate pain.
But just when I’d accepted our relationship was irretrievable, another surprise came: My husband named the darkness taking hold in our love. He told me about his struggles within our marriage that I’d ignored entirely, being so focused on my own self-assigned role of victim in our relationship. And I listened. And then I told my husband how I was feeling. I laid it all out there — the fantasies, the divorce-lawyer shopping online, the misery. And he listened. It was a conversation that set us aright — not immediately, and not without effort and tears and one time where I childishly yelled expletives at him from the front porch as he headed off to work — but I can look back ten years later, from the vantage point of a happy and loved spouse partnered with another happy and loved spouse, and see that discussion as a turning point in our marriage. I’m so very grateful that I didn’t jettison years of friendship and affection because even the idea of other options seemed more attractive in the moment. I’m also grateful that my husband helped me grow into a better partner, rather than simply giving up on us.

Reading The Age of Innocence again this past year brought with it yet another perspective on the star-crossed trio: for me, May has become the hero of the tale. It was May who loved Newland enough to forgive him his indiscretions with Ellen. Although May is portrayed in portions of the novel as naive and even vapid, Wharton weaves throughout the story hints at May’s true depth of understanding. She wasn’t stupid or self-absorbed. May saw Newland’s emotional affair with the Countess for what it was — a fantasy of love that would not hold with time.

Much like my own perusals for future partners, I’d argue Newland’s devotion to Countess Olenska was more a response to his dissatisfaction with his own life rather than a real affair of the heart. Even if he were to leave May and love Ellen, his problems would follow him, much as my own failings as a partner would have followed me into my next relationship. Rather than viewing it as an entrapment, May’s early revelation of her pregnancy strikes me currently as auspicious in its timing, as it helped prevent Newland from throwing away his marriage for a fleeting romance.

Near the end of the novel and now a widower, Newland has a conversation with his son, Dallas, where he discovers this powerful and loving intervention of his wife:
“Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent for me alone — you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.”

Archer received this strange communication in silence. . . After a little while he did not regret Dallas’s indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guess and pitied. . . And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably.
Having lived through several phases of love, and with hopefully many more still to come, I stand with May in acknowledging the value of two lives woven together, but I also understand how tempting alternatives can be when you let those threads fray, untended, as both Newland and I almost did. Thankfully, we both had spouses who stepped in just before irrevocable damage was done to guide us over the chasm, our marriages still intact. I don’t know where my life or my heart will be the next time I read Newland, May, and Ellen’s story, but for now Wharton’s The Age of Innocence affirms what has become for me an essential truth: In love, you’ll need hard work, and more than a little luck.

Image Credit: Wikimedia.

How P.D. James and Detective Fiction Healed My Broken Heart

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My beloved father died suddenly almost five years ago. As it is for everyone who loses someone they love, my family and I found ourselves devastated. Adding to the shock of our loss was the guilt-ridden fact that my mother had not been there with my father during his final days to potentially catch the signs of his rapidly declining heart — she’d been with me, helping to manage my three young children while my husband was on a business trip.

Afterwards, the balanced weights of grief and regret settled on my shoulders, refusing to let go. Breathing was difficult. Prayer left me more drained as I grappled with my anger at losing our family patriarch so early in his life, at the age of 59 and only the beginning of his grandfatherhood, and my shame at the role my own selfishness played. Mothering and remaining a partner to my husband felt like playacting, as I tried to be brave in the face of my shattered grasp on what my life now was. To state perhaps the obvious, I’d never known life without my father.

Words have always been a place of solace for me, but during that turbulent time my own writing became splintered, as though I couldn’t hold a full thought inside my mind (which, clinically speaking, is exactly what grief does to our cognitions). A fog seeped into my neural connections, and consequently my interactions with the world became murky and indistinct. Unable to rely upon my own narrative, I sought out the stories of others who’d been submerged by grief, only to eventually surface for air and write about it.  By a few months in, I’d completed what seems to have become required reading for the recently bereaved, gobbling up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story in hungry waves of reading at night when I couldn’t sleep. But, despite the compassion and empathy offered by these authors, I remained adrift as a woman, a daughter, and a reader. I wanted someone to tell me how to do it; how to live life without my father as an anchor. To my own surprise, I would not find my resilience in memoir, but in a fictional detective.

I discovered P.D. James at my local library, her series of mysteries impressively commanding an entire shelf all for themselves. I had planned to search the library’s database, quite literally, for “Widow Stories.” Despite the fact that I was not a widow, these were the primary books that seemed available to me as I grieved. It was as I wandered the aisles looking for an open kiosk to conduct my search that I noticed James’s work. I’d never read detective fiction before — it being a genre I had often (although I’m ashamed to admit it now) maligned as kitschy or formulaic. Despite this bias, I skeptically selected The Lighthouse from the shelf of offerings, as much out of desperation as curiosity.

I’ve always been an evening reader, and this pattern was set even more strictly during the months after my father’s death. The waning hours of winter daylight were when my anxious bereavement became the most acute, but as I pored through The Lighthouse over the next several nights, Commander Adam Dalgliesh’s controlled approach to the passions of life became a beacon to me. I found comfort in his cool-headedness as he faced the greatest cruelties human connection could muster. Here was a character who clearly felt deeply, penning acclaimed poetry in his spare time, but who also managed to subvert his ardency into a more functional rationality. Dalgliesh became a model for me of how to manage the pain of life’s losses without losing myself.

In The Lighthouse, one of the reader’s first encounters with Dalgliesh, and subsequently my introduction to the detective himself, finds the policeman-poet examining the body of a strangulation victim. P.D. James offers the reader a glimpse behind the detective’s eyes as she details the assessments Dalgliesh makes of the body and the crime scene. The victim’s height and physical features are precisely noted. His clothing is assessed with an intense scrutiny and the furniture in the room examined for clues to the inner workings of the victim. The entire scene is rational, logical, and emotionally tepid. And then, James offers a peek at the vibrant pulse below Dalgliesh’s detached demeanor:
The enclosing sheet seemed to have softened, defining rather than obliterating the sharp point of the nose and the bones of the quiescent arms. And now, thought Dalgliesh, the room will take possession of the dead. It seemed to him as it always did, that the air was imbued with the finality and the mystery of death; the patterned wallpaper, the carefully positioned chairs, the Regency desk, all mocking with their normality and permanence the transience of human life.
When I first read that passage, I was physically struck by the brutal truth of Dalgliesh’s observation. James’s words conjured the painful memory of returning home from the hospital to find the food my father had filled the refrigerator with just a day or so before his death. Milk, potato salad, his favorite cheese packaged from the deli, a few slices taken out. It was a chocolate cake with white frosting, one slice missing, that made me stifle a primal howl that night. The cake sat unassumingly on the middle shelf, but all I could picture was my father cutting himself a piece to enjoy as he sat alone in the house, waiting for his wife to come home. My mother and I promptly cleared out the fridge, both of us too ravaged by grief and guilt to care about the waste. James, through Dalgliesh, helped me to acknowledge, and even accept, that rawness would now lurk underneath the normalcy of life.

Following those observations of Dalgliesh’s in The Lighthouse, the reader sees him immediately shift back into a state of practiced analysis and get on with his job of solving the murder. It is made clear to the reader that Dalgliesh feels a great deal — he simply refuses to allow those feelings to inhibit his capacity to do his duty. If ever there was a lesson for the recently bereaved, I felt that was it: You can feel everything, but life must move forward. You are needed.

I won’t argue with those who say Dalgliesh represents a character who manages life by intellectualizing the emotional and, consequently, repressing actual feeling. I fully agree with that interpretation. When I discovered James and Dalgliesh, my emotional life was threatening to swallow me whole. Too anxious to sleep, my mental faculties drained from the ticker-tape thoughts of “Why didn’t I just hire a babysitter?” and “Why didn’t we make him go to the doctor?”, and my maternal routine involving a daily dose of chastising my children for what I perceived as their easy recuperation from their own loss of their grandfather, I had lost my balance. Reading The Lighthouse, followed by The Murder Room and A Certain Justice, Dalgliesh’s compartmentalized reactions to murder and treachery were the balm I so desperately needed.

I want to emphasize that the comfort I derived from James’s writing was not due to any “coziness” embedded in her mysteries. As noted in Val McDermid’s foreword to James’s recent short story collection published posthumously, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, “she was anything but cosy…She understands that murder is nasty and brutal, that it is fueled by the most malevolent of motives, and she’s not afraid to face that darkness head-on.” Rather, it was James’s frank handling of the brutalities of life that spoke to me. Losing my father was a childhood terror made real, but much like Dalgliesh, I did not have to succumb to these atavistic truths.

In The Murder Room, James describes Dalgliesh’s encounter with a victim burned alive in his own car:
Through the half-closed door he could see the ulna, and a few burnt fragments of cloth adhered to a thread of muscle. All that could burn on the head had been destroyed and the fire had extended to just above the knees. The charred face, the features obliterated, was turned towards him and the whole head, black as a spent match, looked unnaturally small. The mouth gaped in a grimace, seeming to mock the head’s grotesquerie. Only the teeth, gleaming white against the charred flesh, and a small patch of cracked skull proclaimed the corpse’s humanity.
She offers no screens for the reader. This death was full of horror and malice. In all of James’s murder mysteries, the brutal facts of death are on full display for the reader.

It is this transparency, I believe, that put Dalgliesh’s emotional balance into stark relief for me. A detective who had seen the worst in humanity, and yet kept his own in the process. Towards the end of The Murder Room, the murderer safely imprisoned and justice achieved in the only way possible for the victims, Dalgliesh reflects:
He felt both sad and exhausted but the emotion was not strange to him; this was often what he felt at the end of a case. He thought of the lives which his life had so briefly touched, of the secrets he had learned, the lies and the truths, the horror and the pain. Those lives so intimately touched would go on, as would his. Walking back… he turned his mind to the weekend ahead and was filled with a precarious joy.
If Adam Dalgliesh could encounter the worst of mankind and yet still perceive joy in life, I began to believe that I could figure out a way to feel joy again without my father.

Over the next year, I read James’s entire catalogue, which in its breadth covers detective fiction (the Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray series), science fiction (Children of Men), nonfiction (The Maul and the Pear Tree), and her own memoir (Time to Be in Earnest). As I learned more about James herself, her personal story also became a model of how to restart my life without a father. James lost her husband at an early age after his struggles with mental illness. She then proceeded to raise her two daughters on her own while working full time as a civil servant and writing on the weekends. Knowing this now, I look back on my initial trip to the library with a sense of mild bemusement–although I hadn’t known it then, I’d discovered in the library that day another widow and her wide world of stories that would eventually see me out of my grief.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.