Saturday, August 6, 2011

Like Family

In the summer of 1998, when the wife and I visited the family perch in Flood’s Cove, Maine, I picked up her copy of Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone for my porch read. Can’t remember why, it wasn’t because Oprah had recommended it. But I did know it was the fictional tale of a girl coming of age during the late sixties and early seventies.

Just recently I had directed Sarah Morton’s Eighth Wonder of the World, a solo performance about coming of age traumas in Cleveland Heights. While we were on vacation that same summer the wife and I took a drive to Rockland to see a movie, The Last Days of Disco. I don’t know which storyline you were most interested in, but all I remember was the women. If it is a story about women trying to deal with the world, I want to hear it.

I am not going to pretend it is because I sympathize. Maybe I do, but I wouldn’t protest it. What I am, is fascinated. Women interest me. Men do not. Why should they, I know men. I hear about men all the time. Men are tedious. I grew up with two brothers, no sisters, girls are alien and frightening and delightful and they are pretty and they don’t talk about sports (much.)

Recently I was listening to the Book Review podcast and the editor in her late-20s was curious about why a woman would write a book like Allison Pearson's I Think I Love You, which involves a midlife reawakening to her adolescent passion for David Cassidy. This young, Millennium Generation editor woman didn’t get the David Cassidy angle, that whatever he meant to a generation of girls so very long ago, he doesn’t hold the iconic power of a Frank SInatra or Elvis Presley or Justin Bieber.

Justin Bieber? Really? I get it, she does understand the iconic power of a David Cassidy -- only not yet. Because Justin Bieber is a David Cassidy, and not an Elvis or a Frank. And you have to be of a certain age to appreciate a certain stratum of pop culture. (I just spent the weekend with a number of women in their late 40s, I know of what I speak.) But if you are good at it, you may be able to illuminate a very specific time and era in a manner which makes it transcendent.

I mean, we’re all supposed to do that. All us writers.

As a pre-teen, I loved girl protagonists, like Harriet the Spy or I, Trissy. Trissy was a horror story from which I could not tear my eyes, detailing something I could not even comprehend at that point in my life -- the story of parents undergoing a divorce from the point of view of a girl about my age.

There were male role models, sure. Bilbo was a great inspiration, though not so much Frodo who is as much of a cypher as Harry Potter is. I read The Three Investigators, but did not coton to the Hardy Boys (blame Shawn and Parker for that.) Because Judy Blume was iconic girl lit, I was compelled not read it … but I wanted to. Very, very very badly.

These books were my glimpse into another world, where I was not wanted nor allowed. I do not know how much this has to do with my choice of love interests. All of my serious relationships have been with girls or women whose fathers were dead, departed or damaged. The only one who had what we call a normal family unit … well, that one didn’t go so well.

And with the lingering memory of Undone in mind, when it came to take something with me to Maine (because I needed to bring something) I noticed the wife had gotten Paul McLain’s Like Family out of the library. Perfect.

McLain has produced three novels; working backward, this year’s best-seller The Paris Wife, her first novel A Ticket to Ride (P.S.) and Like Family, her first novel, a memoir of her life as a foster child in Fresno, California.

Now I am conflicted. And disappointed. Not in the book, that I liked (and this is not a review.) Just by in people in general. Where is our communication?

Every book is its own universe, some share a basic set of rules, and when I am truly relaxed and let my mind wander and I can try and imagine which novels take place in the same universe, only in different places. Maybe in fantasy they can cross over, not with the characters interacting, but people from each story unwittingly crossing paths.

And if this a true story, and me and my characters exists in the same universe of the early 70s to the mid 80s, well no, these characters to not cross paths but they do inhabit the same world, speak the same language … or in most situations, speak the wrong language. As though every person is in their own isolated universe. Our narrator is unable to or does not have the words to express to those around her what she needs to know to navigate the world, this society, that house.

When you have been introduced suddenly into a new biosphere, that of an entirely different home, it is impossible for a child to know what to say. And yet, so it was in my own life. I just spent a week at my family’s ancestral vacationing seat, where we have been summering for over a century. For a comforting decade it has been just myself and my wife, with family, relaxing, kayaking, sunning, reading-and-drinking. But now we have the children, who, as everywhere else, move us out of our comfort zone into the wider world.

My girl is eight, and started where she left off with other girls in the cove she met last year -- the stepchildren of a woman who was a teenager there when I was a child. She has enough years on me to make no difference now and everything then, she was one of the “big kids.” There were rumors that she and one of my brothers actually tried dating one summer, you know, back then.

I watch as two of her older charges vie for the attentions of one of the boys. Making-out happens in the open, territory is marked, a victory is won, a heart is broken, the world spins.

As usual I sympathize with the girls.

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