A Life in Men

9781616201630

 

book by Gina Frangello

annotation by Kate Maruyama

The structure of A Life in Men is as carefully wrought as it is difficult to unravel. Gina Frangello keeps us moving, ostensibly through the stories attributed to specific men in her heroine Mary’s life – but there is a larger structure and rhythm that goes on, moving from location to location, back and forth through time. I can only imagine she wrote and wrote – as each scene is fully realized, each of its characters fully honored – and then saw how the scenes balanced against each other. Perhaps she moved certain scenes up, others later, as the life and revelations and observances of Mary and the other characters in the story unfolded. So much of the beauty of the story is in the rhythm of its unfolding as each element of the story reveals itself. “Rich tapestry” would be the cliché compliment here and is insufficient. Frangello has woven what feels like the actual fabric of an actual life with all of its complexities and offshoots. This book is a dynamic example of how writers can pull things apart, out of chronological order, put scenes up against each other and see how they play, creating their own tension. I advise so many writers I know to index card their scenes and try shuffling things a little. Characters are best revealed in layers, and not always chronologically. Sometimes we can use a slice of their past or future to inform events going on currently, and while flashback is sometimes employed, a cross-cutting and shuffling often serves a story better.

Frangello employs other tools in giving us the multilayered lives of her characters. In the midst of an already climactic scene in which Mary visits her birth father, bringing a married man with whom she’s having an affair, only to be introduced to her father’s mistress, Frangello throws in a magical realism omniscient glimpse forward, all the while enriching the scene we’re in:

Two months later, when Daniel tells this story to his artist friends in San Miguel, He will transpose the facts so that it was Eli who called Esther Daniel’s concubine and Esther, standing by, flushed with wine, will not contradict him as everyone laughs. Six years later, when Mary tells the story to Sandor over an Indonesian rijsttafel, she will say that it occurred to her only later that maybe Daniel was lying and Gabriella was completely in the dark–there was no way, after all, that either she or Eli would go up to her and ask or ever mention Esther’s name. Thirty years later, when Diane is at last succumbing to an epic, two decade battle with cancer and Eli is unburdening his soul…(153)

You get the idea. The combination of these different tangents of the story in unison at once, within several stories already working in unison, creates a symphony that frankly, I can only tip my hat to—amazing work. It is a good lesson in remembering that novels take years and layers, and that this level of craft doesn’t come from simply trotting off a story, shoving scenes together and hoping they stick. This level of craft comes from bringing characters to life, seeing how they interact and affect each other’s lives, breathing into the scenes and imagining the ways in which those characters’ lives continue, having spun off from the central story being told.

Frangello keeps us anchored in her deft manipulations of space and time and characters through Mary’s body – its limitations, desires, discomfort and pleasures, and the very way in which she experiences each place she visits, each person she meets. Our heroine has Cystic Fibrosis, which serves not only as a ticking clock, but her changing relationship to the condition and to her body, unfolds with each aspect of the story. It goes from the hilarious, with her keeping it secret with great tension and fear on a visit to Daniel’s only to have her cover blown in an unexpected way; to oddly sexy when her alarming symptoms make her instantly desirable to someone who hadn’t considered her before; to terrifying as she struggles for air far from any help; to devastating. There is something about Mary’s ticking clock, her need to gasp for air, which emphasizes her drive to eat up life; her illness also brings together people who would not have otherwise have met in fascinating and random and life-like ways. So often we forget that our living, breathing complex characters are in our strange, varied, pained, twingy, hungry, sexual bodies. A Life in Men is a study in how a body can keep your reader anchored, can propel a story and can add an underlying thrum to each scene it’s in.

Nalo Hopkinson gave a lecture at Antioch University Los Angeles in December of 2013 talking about how readers are “hungry ghosts,” yearning for the experiences of life. They want to be put inside a story that makes them feel as if they are in a real person, walking around inside a real experience. With Mary’s illness, her deeply felt experiences with sex, food and the richness of different locations as our characters travel from Greece to London to Mexico to Amsterdam to Morocco, and through the broad spectrum of life shown through each narrator’s point of view, including those little jumps into the future, Frangello leaves her reader well fed indeed. And the whirl around Mary, who is a catalyst in so many lives, becomes something bigger, illustrating way in which we bump up against people on this planet, and the very fiber of reality changes and morphs and grows richer as we do so.

 

 

Advertisements

My Brilliant Friend

9781609450786_p0_v1_s260x420book by Elena Ferrante

annotation by Lorinda Toledo

Elena Ferrante is an Italian author whose latest novel, My Brilliant Friend, is a character-driven story with a plot that is relatively quiet yet rich. The novel, the first in a trilogy, is set in motion by a mysterious disappearance. Motivated by this mystery, the narrator, Elena Grecco—called Lenú—sits down to write the entire story of her life-long friendship with her vanished friend, Lila. Imbued with the gift of perspective, the narrator reflects on the 1950s childhood and adolescence of the two friends. While Ferrante does many things well in this book, I believe one of the main ways she creates a successful novel is through precise characterization of the protagonists, as well as the minor characters.

While Lenú is the narrator, Lila is arguably the more fascinating protagonist in the story. Because we have only a first person narrator, and therefore do not know what is going on in Lila’s mind, the eccentrically intelligent friend becomes a marvelous mystery to the reader in the same way she is to Lenú. Ferrante establishes the singular bond between these two protagonists at the outset when Lenú introduces the reader to Lila, who’s real name is “…Rafaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over (loc. 103).

Ferrante illustrates the life-long nature of the girls’ friendship beautifully, as in this scene early in the book when as children they bravely approach the house of Don Achille, a man with a reputation as the town ogre, to retrieve the dolls Lila has purposely dropped into his basement through a window: “She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was…She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand” (loc. 171). Lila is simultaneously a solitary outcast and the most beloved in the town. She consistently acts according to her own, highly intelligent mind, which is frequently in opposition to the status quo. As a result, she regularly pushes Lenú outside her comfort zone and on to success. Lila’s character grows and changes quite a bit throughout the book, but what always remains is the intrigue, or brilliance, of her persona.

Lenú and Lila grew up in a small, impoverished town in Naples, which is where most of the story takes place. Even Lenú’s characterization is largely dictated by that of Lila, as in this scene where, as an excellent student, she has received the honor of an island vacation where she can think and rest. It’s something that is unheard of in the poor town she’s from, and is also her first time outside Naples: “I missed only Lila, Lila who didn’t answer my letters. I was afraid of what was happening to her, good or bad, in my absence. It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance” (loc. 2694). Throughout the wave-like ups and downs of the novel’s plot, Lenú consistently describes this type of conflicted love, frustration, and doubt about herself. Lila, in effect, has determined who Lenú is.

There are many other characters in this novel, as well. So many in fact, that there is an “Index of Characters” at the beginning of the book (loc. 16) that the reader can easily refer back to. However, I found that it was rarely necessary because of Ferrante’s skill with creating memorable characterization of each of these relatively minor but recurring personas. There’s Marcello Solara, who falls in love with Lila after she holds a shoemaker’s knife to his neck (loc. 1626). The intelligent Nino Sarratore is the railroad worker/poet’s son and also Lenú’s main love interest (loc. 601). There’s Gigliola Spagnuolo, the smart, pretty baker’s daughter who in many ways becomes Lenú’s main rival (loc. 2501). One of the most memorable characters is Melina Cappuccio, the crazed widow and town outcast who everyone shuns except for Lila (loc. 295). These minor characters and their relationships with Lenú and Lila often say as much about the protagonists as their own actions do of themselves.

There are far too many characters to mention them all, but one of my favorite characterizations is of Lenú’s mother:

The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course. It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking. Nor did her right leg work properly—she called it the damaged leg. She limped, and her step agitated me, especially at night, when she couldn’t sleep and walked along the hall to the kitchen, returned, started again. Sometimes I heard her angrily crushing with her heel the cockroaches that came through the front door, and I imagined her with furious eyes, as when she got mad at me (loc. 387).

While it is expanded upon throughout the course of the story, this demonstrates the level of characterization in the novel well. Although Lenú’s mother is a minor character, Ferrante instills the relationship with a complexity of villainy and sympathy beginning with the choices she makes in the narrator’s description of the mother.

As a fiction writer, what I appreciate that Ferrante has achieved nearly unlimited plot potential by populating the world of her novel with well-developed characters. Furthermore, she is able to sustain consistent and ever-deepening characterization over the entire course of the novel. The characterization—particularly that of Lenú and Lila—becomes the main aspect of the plot. This is a powerful skill for me as a writer to learn, because much of my writing seeks to explore the nature of relationships through literature, without turning the story into melodrama.

In My Brilliant Friend, the external conflicts are many and the stakes are high, but they feel secondary, existing only to serve this exploration of the relationship between the two girls. In this way, Ferrante achieves a realistic and multi-faceted meditation on the nature of female friendship.