Nonfiction & Fiction by Russo

Elsewhere: A Memoir     Richard Russo     (2012)

That Old Cape Magic     Richard Russo     (2009)

The Destiny Thief:  Essays on Writers, Writing and Life     Richard Russo     (2018)


Richard Russo’s 2001 novel Empire Falls (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and most of his other novels are set in decaying industrial towns peopled by rough-and-tumble strugglers. It’s no secret that in his fiction Russo drew on his experiences growing up in Gloversville, in upstate New York, which by the 1960s was severely polluted, from the byproducts of the manufacture of leather gloves, and poverty stricken, since the glove industry had moved to India and China.

When I ran across this memoir by Russo, I thought he might reveal how his novels are linked to his own biography. Elsewhere does provide some clues for avid Russo readers, but it’s primarily the story of Russo’s relationship with his mother, who raised him on her own after her divorce from his father when Richard was a small child. Jean Russo was smart, hardworking, attractive, sexy, fashionable, controlling, manipulative, selfish, explosive, confused, and unhappy most of the time. Richard loved her fiercely and tried for decades to relieve her sadnesses. Only after her death, in her mid-eighties, did he realize that she likely had a serious mental health condition that was never diagnosed or treated.

The narrative is somewhat uneven, as memoir can be, but Elsewhere is a touching portrait of a tormented woman. I kept looking back at the photos of Russo and his mother on the cover of the book, feeling as if I knew these two people personally.

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For a glimpse into how Russo’s mother may have influenced his fiction, try That Old Cape Magic, a 2009 novel that’s one of his gentlest narratives—a kind of meditation on relationships (successful, failed, failing, blissful, doomed, redeemable). Griffin, the middle-aged protagonist, attends two weddings, a year apart. The first wedding takes place on Cape Cod, and it stirs up in his memory the childhood vacations that he spent there with his parents, who were escaping their academic jobs in the hated Midwest. Griffin is trying to come to terms with his parents’ unhappy marriage, especially since he’s carrying his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car, and since his own marriage is not so solid. Griffin’s mother, long divorced from his late father, phones him constantly in this story, and her voice sounds similar, in tone and level of sarcasm, to the voice that author Russo gives to his own mother in his memoir. 

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For more details on Russo’s writing process, pick up his 2018 book, The Destiny Thief, a collection of nine essays, some of which have been previously published. I’d recommend skipping the essay on The Pickwick Papers unless you’re a serious fan of Charles Dickens. But the essay “Getting Good” has valuable advice for aspiring writers, particularly on the controversial issue of digital versus print publication. The piece titled “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omniscience” is a brilliant analysis of the function of narrative voice in fiction, with examples from Russo’s work and from the writing of others, based on his years of teaching in writing programs across the country and around the world.

In another vein, “Imagining Jenny” is an emotional account of how a writer friend of Russo’s underwent gender reassignment surgery. All in all, this collection is pure Russo—sardonic, funny, and smart.

Pregnancy & Pear Trees

Leaving Lucy Pear     Anna Solomon     (2016)

It seems to me that about half the novels that I read have at the heart of the plot a single woman with an unintended pregnancy. Granted, I read a lot of historical novels, and historically the pregnancy of an unwed woman was a cause of anxiety, grief, distress, secrecy, scheming, and crime.

In the novel Leaving Lucy Pear, Beatrice Haven is the young single woman with an unintended pregnancy. She leaves her newborn daughter in a pear orchard in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, on a night when she expects that pear thieves will be present to find the bundle. All this is revealed in the prologue, set in 1917. The main action of the story occurs a decade later. Unbeknownst to Beatrice, the baby has been named Lucy Pear and has been raised by Emma Murphy, the mother of a large, impoverished Irish American family. Beatrice, who is from a wealthy Jewish family in Boston, continues to be tormented by her act of abandoning her child and spends much of her time at the home of the uncle who owns the pear orchard. The lives of Beatrice and Emma intertwine in complex ways as the plot works toward resolution of some, but not all, of the issues raised about motherhood, womanhood, sexuality, and family ties. 

The setting of the North Shore in Massachusetts is significant. This rocky peninsula between Boston and New Hampshire is rich with literary associations, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to TS Eliot. The time period is also significant, with the political backdrop of the Prohibition era and the controversial 1927 executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, professed anarchists who were accused of robbery and murder. Weaving in and out of the narrative of Leaving Lucy Pear are threads about the temperance movement, liquor smuggling, anarchism, communism, industrialization, labor unions, and social class. 

Anna Solomon’s writing is delicate and introspective. There are many sentences like this: “When she looked at him, her cheeks wrinkled and red from where her sleeves had pressed into them, her eyes pinned him to his chair.” (235) As a reader, I wanted to find out the next component of the plot, but I also wanted to linger on scenes in which character traits are revealed by family members discussing domestic matters. 

Beatrice abandons her baby so that she can move on with her life, go to Radcliffe, and perhaps become a concert pianist. But her plan falters, and that may have been the best outcome for her. Late in the novel, a minor character pronounces, “’Most people want to be extraordinary. Make a mark in the world. But for what? In my experience it’s the extraordinary people what aren’t happy, always expecting something better than they get. Whenever anything at all happens to me, I tell myself it’s happened to everyone else, too. It’s actually very comforting.’” (313-314)


Soul Searching in Spain

Hot Milk     Deborah Levy     (2016)

Sofia Papastergiadis is at loose ends. She hasn’t finished her PhD dissertation in anthropology. She has a dead-end job as a barista. At age 25, she still lives with her mother, Rose, an insufferable hypochondriac whom Sofia waits on constantly. Sofia has long been estranged from her Greek father, who lives in Athens with his new wife and baby.

As the novel Hot Milk opens, Sofia is in southern Spain with Rose, who has taken out a large mortgage on her home in England to buy the services of a renowned doctor, Gómez, who she hopes will diagnose her ailments properly. While Rose undergoes medical testing by the questionable Gómez, Sofia roams rather aimlessly around the scorching beachfront town. She shatters her precious laptop, swims in waters infested with jellyfish, engages in varied sexual encounters—and then makes a quick trip to Athens to confront her father.

Sofia’s inner life and self-searching are at the heart of this tale, which is appropriately cast in first-person narrative. She constantly queries herself: “Am I self-destructive, or pathetically passive, or reckless, or just experimental, or am I a rigorous cultural anthropologist, or am I in love?” (175) It’s significant that Sofia has been trained as an anthropologist, since she often seems to be mentally documenting her own life for an individual ethnography. Novelist Deborah Levy has other characters analyze Sofia, too, as when Gómez tells her, “’You are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life.’” (111)

Although I found this novel meandering at times, the study of family dynamics is absorbing. And the evocations of the barren landscapes of southern Spain in late summer are excellent: “Cranes from the desalination plant sliced into the sky. Tall undulating dunes of greenish-grey cement powder lay in a depot to the right of the beach, where unfinished hotels and apartments had been hacked into the mountains like a murder.” (23) The wordplay is also amusing. For example, Sofia (whose name in Greek means “wisdom”) is repeatedly stung by jellyfish, called “medusas” in Spanish. When she arrives in Athens, she reflects, “Here I am in the birthplace of Medusa, who left the scars of her venom and rage on my body.” (138)

Bubbling under the surface of the story is commentary on the recent economic problems within the European Union. In Hot Milk as in real life, highly educated people are working in menial jobs, and austerity measures are crippling the Greek economy. Sofia’s father, a wealthy retired businessman, espouses his own form of austerity in refusing to help Sofia financially. One theme in the book is Sofia’s realization of the grim selfishness that is rampant in her world. Echoing her stepmother’s right-wing comments, Sofia asks herself, “Why would my father do anything that was not to his advantage?” (142)

I still don’t get the title Hot Milk. I’m guessing that it’s meant to conjure up images of a comforting drink that a mother might offer a daughter who is sick or distressed. Sofia won’t get any hot milk from her cruel mother, but readers may learn about something about themselves in this story.

Zadie Smith's Latest

Swing Time     Zadie Smith     (2016)

Two young girls meet at dance class in 1980s London, both poor, both with one white parent and one black parent. Tracey is a preternaturally talented dancer, but the other girl, the unnamed narrator of the novel, is not. The girls watch videos of old movies to study dance technique, and Swing Time, the 1936 musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is one of their favorites.

We follow the diverging lives of Tracey and the narrator as the novel skips back and forth in time over twenty-plus years, with issues of race and class always at the fore, always presented frankly.  I got pulled into caring for these two characters with the brilliant scenes of childhood and adolescence, as the friends are finding their life paths in the cultural excitement of late-20th-century Britain. Tracey, flashy and outspoken, becomes a professional dancer, albeit in the chorus line. The narrator, reserved and sensible, goes to university and then lands a job as a personal assistant to a famous globetrotting singer-dancer named Aimee. The supporting cast is strongly delineated, with the mothers of the two friends playing major roles. The mother-daughter relationships are depicted with a clarity that can make you squirm.

We know from the start of the novel that the narrator will suffer some major career and personal setback, so part of the tension in the narrative is watching how she will arrive at that outcome. The details play out in West Africa, where the pop star Aimee decides to splash a portion of her wealth on humanitarian projects that, predictably, go awry.

At this point, when the story moves to Africa, my eyes started to glaze over as I tried to read. After the superb London chapters, I found the descriptions and dialogue in the African part of the plot boring: a white pop star sweeps into an impoverished black village for brief visits while her mixed-race assistant handles the details of the distribution of largesse. If the novel hadn’t ventured back to Britain once in a while, I would have abandoned it.

What was wrong with me? I was reading a novel by Zadie Smith, the acclaimed author of White Teeth. How could I find the African segments boring? Did I need to drink more caffeine before reading?

After I trudged to the last page of Swing Time, I decided to look up a few reviews to see if I was missing something. I don’t usually read book reviews by others before writing my own, but I was perplexed. Almost all the reviewers gave Swing Time raves (including Annalisa Quinn for NPR and Taiye Selasi for The Guardian). Michiko Kakutani (for the New York Times) praised the London sections of the novel but called the African sections “perfunctorily rendered” and “formulaic and predictable.” Aha! Kakutani, the Supreme Goddess of Book Reviews, had exactly the same take that I had about those scenes in Africa!

If you decide to read Swing Time, skim over the chapters set in Africa. The true heart of this novel is in its exploration of friendship. Friends can comfort or exasperate you. They can protect or betray you, and they can swing back and forth between these extremes. But you need friends to be a whole person. The characters in Swing Time show us these truths.