A million words for bath-pruned skin

Pregnancy, to me, is like holding my breath: the longer it progresses, the harder it is to concentrate on anything besides its eventual end. My son has cropped up at the edge of the bed, one hand curled around the ancient Motorola cell-phone, long dead, that he carries with him everywhere. He is slurping on an ice cube, oblivious to its cold. I wonder if I have been paying enough attention, these last nine months. What was January, besides my birthday, where my old carry-a-beer-can trick fooled no one? February was a trip to Lake Placid, where I snowshoed every day, my son papoosed to my back. There was a failed trip to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit and a few weeks of bone-tiredness. What was March? Hyperemesis and a snow day that wasn’t, when I could still comfortably carry him, and did, through bright, dry streets.

In April, we went to Savannah, which was as thickly canopied and magical for wandering as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Brienne’s blog had purported it to be. Also: hushed, which I was not expecting. Like good Brooklyners, we ate fried oysters in a refurbished bus station and crab cakes at a marsh-side shack with twinkle lights and squid ceviche and corn hole, and pimento cheese and heirloom beans at Husk, whose serpentine bar bore a remarkable cross-section of loosened ties and sleeve tattoos, pearls and full-on coiffures and dreadlocks and midsommar braids, clattering heels and polished loafers and stompy boots and boat shoes.

Mother’s Day, it was 43 degrees and pouring and we went, all three of us, to a charity day rave at House of Yes. (No, it wasn’t really — I just wanted to write that!) There were arialists and pole dancers, enviably lithe. I was visibly pregnant in my black mini dress. The hallway to the bathrooms was tiled in silvery glass, like a disco ball, and my son couldn’t get enough of it.

In June, I flew to Salt Lake, whose raw, denuded natural beauty the Mormons have done their best to dampen with mass-produced stucco and too few trees. And then we moved. My husband did most of the packing and all of the schlepping; my son put books in and out of boxes and cried at the huck-huck of the tape roller; he danced in the bay window and appropriated two of the tape measures.

In July, we hid out in pools, my son walking straight into the water, like Jesus or a basilisk. In Vermont, he wanted to see the horses where months earlier he’d wailed at the sight of them; he extended his hand to be wet-nosed by the newest calf. Whether he thought either was related to the illustrations in a Year at Maple Hill Farm or The Oxcart Man is another question entirely. 

And then it was August, and we stayed put.

At some point during the past nine months, my son learned to walk, and then to run. The blonde curls that had taken so long to come in were shorn — too short, I tell my husband, who likes hair cadet-tidy.  Books became objects of fascination and comfort. Babble became words. Now I can ask my son if he is crying because he wants another ice cube and be reasonably certain he’ll understand enough to stop crying, extend a cold, wet hand and allow himself to be led to the kitchen. Now he can say “beep, beep, beep” at the end of The Little Blue Truck, and thump his chest when we get to the picture of the father and child gorilla in I Know My Daddy Loves Me Because… and stomp his feet in tune to “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

Nine months is nothing in the scheme of a life, but it is just shy of half of my son’s life. To paraphrase Jen, he is how I keep time. He and the pregnancy tracker and the occasional out-of-state aberrations. My life, to those not interested in the minutiae of raising a toddler, must seem a comfortably dull one. And yet, I’d counter, because of the toddler and the marriage and the accumulation of years, it is a lived one. Which brings me to Sally Rooney. 

All the reading people I know — all the reading people I read — are reading Sally Rooney, or have just read her. Her first book, Conversations with Friends, arrived stateside with minor fanfare (Rooney is Irish); her second, Normal People, occasioned a highbrow blitz, including the creme de la creme of literary belt notches: a New Yorker profile. I’m aware that what I have said and am going to say will taste, not unfairly, of sour grapes. Rooney is only twenty seven and has published two incredibly successful novels; I am thirty one and have not yet managed to publish one (and not for lack of trying!). And yet. Reading Rooney was a reminder as to why.

There is a thinness to most of the fiction we write in our twenties; a tendency towards solipsistic narrators whose interiors remain nonetheless opaque. The motivations and interiors of other central characters are often even skimpier, their voices uneven. These are all criticisms that have been levied, accurately, at my own first novel, but they apply to Rooneys’ work as well. The difference being that Rooney is a master of the immediate.

Very little happens in Conversations with Friends, and even less happens in Normal People, but I would classify both as page-turners. They are short, and eagle-eyed; they give a very good sense of how the narrator, who is more or less the same book-to-book, must appear to other people: enigmatic, angular, disconcertingly observant. Dispassionate. Cynical. These traits don’t manifest in many female protagonists, and when they do, the protagonist often turns out to be a psychopath — which Rooney’s narrators are not. They care about other people; they just don’t tell you why. 

In Conversations with Friends, one of the people the narrator, Francis, cares about is Bobby — her one-time girlfriend and current roommate and classmate at Trinity College. Bobby is beautiful and well-off, but Rooney has the generosity to also make her intelligent and magnetic; a high school rebel, a hater of capitalism, a lover of adventure, and long, passionate debates. But Bobby is only ever on-page via Francis, and given how self-absorbed Francis is, and how absorbed she becomes in her next relationship, these appearances are far too few. The book would have been stronger, I think, if Bobby had been alloted a narrative of her own. As it is, we spend an awful lot of time with Nick, the former child prodigy turned c-list actor with whom Francis has a prolonged affair.

Nick is a cypher; we are told he battles with serious depression, but the only present-day evidence of this is physical: after a period apart, when he and Francis reunite at the vacation home of his wife’s mentor (awkward!), he is drawn and haggard. Rooney is overly reliant on descriptions of the body-as-window-to-the-soul. Francis is forever noticing how pink and wrinkled her skin gets in the bath, as if this is an unusual quality. Also, she is up there with the cast of And Then There Were None in terms of being a terrible houseguest. 

There are two protagonists in Normal People (the narrative  is in the close third — though it is stylistically similar to Conversations with Friends’ first), but here again Marianne, the Francis-esque narrator, is afforded more air; although Connell, her childhood acquaintence/lover/son of her semi-estranged mother’s cleaning lady, is afforded as many pages, he is somewhat of a shadow. In Rooney’s defense, he is supposed to be. He’s a high school BMOC from the wrong side of the tracks, rendered tentative amidst the privileged, self-confident swirl of one of the world’s top universities — a swirl out of which Marianne, once so universally scorned that Connell kept their after-school liaisons private, has emerged a queen, burnished and lusted after by her fellow elite. The inverted power dynamic is rich territory, and Rooney illustrates Connell’s bewilderment keenly, but the inversion happens very early in the story, and because both Connell’s and Marianne’s remaining sections are devoted almost entirely to Marianne, there isn’t much of a sense that it might revert, or at least stabilize. 

The most frustrating aspect of Normal People is how very stinting Rooney is viz exploring the impacts of the characters’ abnormalities. Marianne comes from an abusive family: her father was and brother is physically abusive; her mother, emotionally. Marianne is prone to extreme thinness, sadistic relationships, and binge-drinking. As readers, we can connect the dots. But dots are all Rooney gives us. 

On the whole, I think Conversations with Friends is the stronger book, or at least the more memorable one — though Normal People does have more character growth (as in, more than zero). I would definitely recommend reading one of them, because the writing is so fresh. But! Reading the south of France scenes in Conversations made me yearn to be reading, instead, the south of France scenes in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, in which torpor also battles restlessness and lust, and secret acts also abound, and arch class distinctions are also drawn, but there is just so much more meat on the bone (perhaps too much, but oh, it is toothsome stuff). Though Nick and Wani and Toby are roughly the same age as Francis and Bobby, Hollinghurst himself was nearly fifty when he wrote The Line of Beauty. This is not to say that age deepens all — goodness, Zadie Smith was only twenty-six when she wrote White Teeth, a novel whose depth is cacophonic and polytextured — but it does make me very excited to read Rooney’s future work.

And now that I’ve wound up sounding pompous as well as envious, I’ll sign off and wait for this baby to arrive! (Imminently, I hope.)  

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