Two Brief Reviews

When I first read Lorrie Moore I thought she was French; this was because I read her debut novel, Anagrams, in French, which was an extraordinary thing to do when you think about that book, but it worked really well, so well in fact that it was years before I realized I’d been reading a translation. Moore has a writing style that, if transposed into music, would become jazz. She riffs endlessly, as if whatever lands in front of her narrating eye sparks off endless metaphors and inventive ideas. This makes her a rich and rewarding writer at times, an infuriatingly digressive one at others. A Gate At The Stairs, her third novel and a shortlist contender for the Orange prize, finds her on gloriously creative form and still not quite able to sculpt her material into the shapeliness of novel-length fiction.

The story concerns Tassie Keltjin, a typically sensitive, wry and directionless heroine, who escapes her provincial farming background to arrive in Troy for a madcap collection of college modules. She’s also lonely and needs to earn some cash, and so she becomes embroiled in the lives of Edward Thornwood and Sarah Brink, a career-oriented couple in late middle age who have decided to adopt a toddler. Sarah Brink is a vivid character, a restaurateur with a predilection for complicated dishes and an over-developed sense of political correctness. The little girl they adopt, Emmie, (and this is one of the best parts of the book, laying bare the ludicrous nature of adoption, a process that matters so much to all concerned that it has become nonsensical in its rules and regulations) is African-American and the narrative finds its greatest punch when wondering what to make of the toxic mix of casual racism and over-cautious colour sensitivity in the Midwest. For instance, Tassie gets called out by Sarah for teaching the song ‘I Been Working On The Railroad’ to her, and to Tassie’s incredulous reply of “You’re serious?” Sarah replies

‘”Kind of.” She looked right through me. “I’m not sure.” And then she went upstairs as if to go figure it out. When she came back down she added “Correct subject-verb agreement is best when children are learning language, so be careful what you sing. It’s an issue when raising kids of color. A simple grammatical matter can hold them back in life. Down the road.”’

The issues of racism, the complexities of adoption and the relationship between Tassie, the child and her employers are the beating heart of the book, and all focus on the way that contemporary society gets so caught up in policing the details that the awful flaws in the big picture get completely overlooked. But there’s also a bunch of other stuff thrown in for good measure that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. I still like Lorrie Moore a great deal, and think she is immensely talented, but she is often frustrating and this is a far from perfect novel.

By contrast, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic had far lower ambitions for itself and exceeded them elegantly. I’d long been meaning to try Hoffman and this book was another triumph for the stockpile, having been purchased in 1999. What I particularly loved about the novel was the storytelling voice of the narrator; it’s just like being sat down at the feet of an iconic grandmother and being told an adult fairy tale. Literally – this is effectively magic realism although so gently and cleverly done that you’re seduced by it every step of the way. The Owens sisters, Sally and Gillian, have struggled all their lives with being different. Orphaned at a young age they were brought up by their aunts, who received the lovelorn women of the town in their kitchen at dusk and provided them with the remedies they needed for their aching, or breaking, hearts. Except of course quite often the solution turns out to be worse than the problem, and so the sisters grow up with both a jaded view of love as well as an ambivalent connection to their witchy legacy. Gillian takes to breaking hearts and runs away to the West coast, while Sally stays the all-too-sensible person she has always been, trying to bring up her two daughters in concrete normality, having lost her husband to an accident that was predicted but not prevented.

Of course, nothing can stay in stasis forever, and just as her daughters are reaching difficult ages themselves, so Gillian comes back into Sally’s life, bringing a whole lot of problems with her. Over the course of the sisters’ uneasy reunion a lot will happen, and all of it destined to sort out the knots and problems that have been tangling up their lives. This was a charming book, delightfully redemptive, engagingly written, warm and vivid and fun. It requires you to suspend disbelief quite comprehensively, so don’t go there if you’re in the mood for gritty realism. But I was in the mood to be entertained and most certainly was. I don’t doubt it will bear no resemblance to the novel, but I’ve sent for the DVD with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Has anyone seen the movie? I will save it up for a dreary day.


17 thoughts on “Two Brief Reviews

  1. The Royal Order Of The Silver Wishbone (aka women of my family and extended family who met for dinner and a movie every Wednesday night at Shorty’s unitl this last Feb.) rented this movie and loved it. I haven’t read the book – although now I want to – so I can’t tell you if it follows it. But it was a fun movie, perfectly suited for Halloween.

  2. I’ve been wanting to read “Practical Magic” for a very long time now, just keep forgetting about it. The movie is a favorite of mine, but as I have yet to read the work it was based upon I have no idea how they compare. Good to know the book is worth the read. 🙂

  3. I have a cold and am struggling with exhaustion because of it, so Practical Magic might be the perfect book. This is the moment that I wish I had an e-reader to download something to because I have no energy to go out and obtain any books. I wonder whether I’m too sensitive about adoption to appreciate the other novel or whether I would like it better because of that.

  4. Interesting review of the Moore book. I’ve got Anagrams on my shelves, and I’m looking forward to getting to it (in English!). Your description of her writing makes me think I will like her, as I’m fond of digressions and don’t mind tangents and material that doesn’t go anywhere. Or at least maybe I do. It will be interesting to see what I make of her!

  5. I am not tempted by this Lorrie Moore even though I like her short stories. Alice Hoffman is a secret favourite of mine but Practical Magic is one of her weakest, still it is much more entertaining than many other novels. I actually preferred the movie in this case. Hope you will enjoy it too. Alice Hoffman is not so much a writer as a born story-teller. The picture you evoke – sitting down at the feet of a grandmother – means just that, I guess. I love all the beginnings of her novels. They immediately transport you into an enchanted world still things are often not perfect and she does tackle difficult subjects as well. But that is what magical realism is about (Although I occasionally wonder if we can really call her writing magical realism as this is a term linked to South American and Carribean writers where it is handled in a different way. Not sure.) Will you read any others of her books? The River King is very good. Quite gothic.

  6. I had NO idea Practical Magic was a novel first. I did see the DVD, but, oddly, have zero recollection of it other than it starred KIdman and Bullock. I quite like the sound of Lorrie Moore, whom I’ve not read. I heard a great quote about the value of digression on the radio this morning, and I think I am quite partial to it as long as the writing rewards one’s patience – and hers sounds like it does. Lovely, snappy reviews, LL!

  7. I’ve not come across Lorrie Moore before but thanks to your review I’ll put her on my to-read list. I quite like novels with a bit of digression, some things that are just there for the sake of it – as long as the writing is up to it that is.

  8. I like the sound of the Lorrie Moore (although I agree that too much digression can be a bit irritating). And I could do with some magic realism over the gritty realism that is my life right now!

  9. Isn’t it nice when a book turns out better than you expected? I read Practical Magic so long ago I don’t really remember it (more so the movie) and am not sure why I never picked up any of her other books. She’s very popular here. Lorrie Moore’s book is one I checked out from the library but never was quite inspired enough to read. I read her Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (isn’t that a great title?) so long ago that that is yet another story that has faded from memory. I think Lorrie Moore has written a number of short story collections and even the novel I read (or was it short stories,too?) was very short. I wonder if some writers just do better in a short story format?

  10. I’ve read some of Moore’s short stories and wasn’t that taken by them. Maybe I should try Anagrams in English. I’ve heard Practical Magic is good and keep meaning to read it someday but you know how that goes. I read her book Turtle Moon ages ago and enjoyed that one though I’ve been told Practical Magic is even better. I’ll have to keep it in mind when I need an entertaining read.

  11. I’m looking forward to Anagrams, but first it’s short story land for me. I enjoyed ‘Gate’ but I do see what everyone means about it not really being a pulled together novel. Is it just me, or do you think the fact that all the critics could talk about in the run up to The Orange was the fact that she’d never written a novel before and writing in novella form could never be as well developed as a novel indicates that there was outside pressure for her to write a novel length work? I think I’d have been fine if she’s continued with novellas all her life.

  12. I read Practical Magic last week and enjoyed it well enough. It didn’t inspire me to seek out any more books by Hoffman, although I did like its fairy tale feel. An entertaining and quick read.

  13. I enjoy Lorrie Moore’s short stories, pretty much all that I’ve read. I did read one novel – Who Will Run the Frog Hospital – I think it was her first, and I don’t think it was anywhere near as good as her short fiction. But I plan to read this newest novel, mainly because I’m curious to see how she’s developing with longer form writing.

    This is rare for me, but I’ve seen the movie Practical Magic and never read the book. I actually really like the movie, and even watched it again a few months ago on a rainy day. Mainly because Aidan Quinn is so good…as are Kidman and Bullock. And it also has Stockard Channing in a wonderful role.

  14. Grad – I recall you mentioning your film nights on your blog, and thinking what fun they sounded! Delighted to have the wishbone’s seal of approval and just hoping my DVDs turn up soon so I can watch them!

    Kimberley – I can certainly vouch for the book and yay! So glad you enjoyed the movie. It’s often odd to see how different books and movie adaptations are, but then I am often pleased about that. It means you can have twice the entertainment without being bored!

    Lilian – poor you! We all have colds here but only pathetic sniffles, nothing serious. I would wish you an ereader full of good books if I could! I thought of you while reading the Moore and did wonder how you would respond to it. I think parts would really have annoyed you and parts would have brought forth your sympathy. Which isn’t very helpful, is it? But I’d be interested to know how it made you react.

    Dorothy – I’ll be very interested to know what you make of her, too. I would have guessed you’d like her, particularly Anagrams, which is oddly enough the one I’ve enjoyed most.

    Mystica – I’d love to know what you make of it. I must come and visit your site.

    Caroline – I will definitely read more Alice Hoffman now, and have Seventh Heaven and The Ice Queen on the shelves. You’re right that the main strand of magic realism has more evident political goals, or at least the intention to provide an alternate version of history. But there are all kinds of magic realism, some very abstract and playful in Europe, for instance. Hoffman is sort of in the middle. I wonder about reading Lorrie Moore’s stories, but I am not a great short story person. I’ve heard good things about them, though.

    Doctordi – you know, I think you would like Lorrie Moore. She makes me think of that line: When she was good, she was very very good, and when she was bad she was horrid. But on the whole, she’s very good and well worth reading. Quite a writer’s writer, I think.

    Crawling – Moore is a genuinely good writer, so no worries on that score. Digression is a particular taste, isn’t it? I love it sometimes. I’d be interested to know how you get on with her if you do read one of her books.

    Danielle – I really think they do. I’ve never written a short story myself, but I assume they must require a very different mindset to a novel. I wish I could get into short stories more – I’m not sure why I tend to avoid them, but I do. I’m looking forward to watching Practical Magic on DVD. I like all sorts of books, but I’m afraid with films I only ever watch silly, comforting ones!

    Stefanie – sometimes an entertaining read is exactly what’s required! I haven’t got Turtle Moon but it rates quite well on amazon, so I expect I will be tempted shortly (as my stockpiling goes on a treat). I can imagine that Moore is not everyone’s cup of tea!

    Jodie – you know, I agree, there was a load of stuff about that and I couldn’t quite understand it. Anagrams is a perfectly respectable length for a novel (or at least in my memory it is – perhaps I have that wrong?) and the Frog Hospital was short, sure, but still a darn sight longer than a short story. But I’m a fan of novellas in any case. I love their compactness and how powerful that can make them. So anyway, I didn’t see that Moore had had so little experience of longer forms outside the short story and I don’t see novellas as poor versions of novels. Silly critics.

    Margaret – yup, it was just that. But I do like that sometimes – I find I’ve been reading nothing but depressing books and I really need a pick me up that I don’t have to emotionally bond with. 🙂

    Verbivore – I admit I have watched Howard’s End and never read the book! It’s often a surprise when that happens, but I’m so glad you enjoyed Practical Magic – that bodes well. As for Lorrie Moore, Anagrams came out before the Frog Hospital book. I was living in France when I bought the former, and had a 9-month-old son when I bought the latter. It’s sad to remember my life by what I was reading at the time, but somehow that’s just how it goes in my mind….

  15. Pingback: Alice Hoffman, The Probable Future (2003) « Smithereens

  16. Returning to read your post having finishing At Gate at the Stairs and find myself, as always, agreeing with you. Lorrie Moore is great fun to read, her wordplay is charming, but the novel went nowhere. The last third was a disappointment and felt tacked-on. However, I would always recommend her for people who would enjoy her as a poet (or musician) rather than as a novelist.

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