Beware of the Perils of Love at First Sight: Rachel DeWoskin and Her Stories of Love

Big Girl Small, Harper Collins, 2011.
Big Girl Small, Harper Collins, 2011.

“Can you fall in love with a writer at first read?” I asked myself when reading the first few lines of Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin. I am usually wary of things that are too easy to like, of too good first impressions, but the beginning of this book it’s so strange and engaging, that after two paragraphs I was already telling myself, “Um, I think I’m going to like this book very much.”

Grab & Go! If everything was as easy as this…

The Grab & Go series by my local library in Port Coquitlam, BC.
The Grab & Go! series by my local library in Port Coquitlam, BC.

I love my local library.  A few weeks ago I went there to return a big pile of DVDs and children’s books. As I was leaving, I noticed  these large, brown bags lined on the main counter. They looked like big, wonderful presents waiting to be picked. They all looked the same, except for a sticker on the top with the description of what may be inside: Novels, Non-Fiction, Gardening, Cooking & Crafts, Science Fiction. It’s Grab & Go!, titles picked by the library staff and put together in mystery bags for lazy readers like me. What a wonderful idea!  And I’m their perfect audience: I’ve been relying in the last several months on the library recommendations, the new arrivals section and the odd recommendation by a friend or family member. I just don’t have much time to read anything at all, and that includes book releases and reviews.

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

Casual Vacancy

I am a Harry Potter fan. At the insistence of my mom, who was aware of the books very early on, I started to read the series and soon became a fan as did almost everybody else. It was great to dive into Harry Potter‘s world and to engage in the cultural conversation with my mom, my sisters and, seemingly, the rest of the world.

Girl Reading, by Katie Ward

Image from http://bookfinds.com/blog/2012/02/21/girl-reading-by-katie-ward/
Image from http://bookfinds.com/blog/2012/02/21/girl-reading-by-katie-ward/

One of the privileges of youth is time. Yes, we are all handed the same amount every day, it’s just that, as we get older (and specially after having children) we fill ourselves with so many responsibilities, that some things start to get thrown out of the window (in my case: exercising, listening to music, reading anything longer than gossip blogs and Twitter feeds, sanity, at times). It’s not a completely negative thing, having “less time”: it has forced me to become more decisive and more practical. I’m still hugely indecisive and unpractical, but I’m a little bit better. So for the last couple of years, when I go to the library, not having had any time to read on book recommendations, or be on top of the last releases, I’ve been relaying on the library staff suggestions. I have found some very good books this way and also, like most people, by totally judging books by their covers: my weakness is books with paintings on them. One of these was Girl Reading, by Katie Ward.

More than a novel, this books reads like a collection of short stories very delicately tied together by images that appear in each of them.  The stories start in the 14th century and move through history until we reach the late 21st century. The beautiful cover of the edition I read shows a detail from Annunciation by Simone Martini (1333). “Annunciation”  is also the title of the first chapter and 1333 the year the first story takes place. A young woman, an orphan living in a convent, is chosen to sit for a master painter. She doesn’t understand until much later that she is going to be the model for the virgin in the painting, the very same one that we see on the cover. Ward plays with the themes of the painting (the annunciation, immaculate conception) and they become part of the story itself in a very subtle, but smart way. And so it is for each chapter, where she imagines the story behind the images, the circumstances that may have led to its creation.

Ward writes with a beautiful lightness of touch and seems not only able to capture the time period of each story but inhabit the images and paintings that we associate with it.

In “Angelica Kauffman: Portrait of a Lady, 1775”she writes about a bereaved lover consumed by the sadness and loneliness of death. She is a countess, though she has lived away from her husband for quite some time. Her beautiful lover has recently died. She summons the famous painter Angelica Kauffman to complete the portrait she had started of her lover, the subject of Kauffman’s Portrait of a Lady.  Ward is wonderful in that she gets the time period, the history, the manners, in just a few pages. The poor countess falls from society when one of her many creditors accuses her and her lover, Frances, of being lesbians. Kauffman has been a friend to her, remembers Frances when she was alive. The days go by while she tries to finish the painting from memory and as the countess slowly starts to heal.   It’s a very moving story about love and loss and perhaps also about the healing power of art.

The most thought-provoking story is the last one. It takes place in 2060. By this time, governments have had to lock and protect most of Western art due to some sort of international conflict where art is going to mostly private hands. So most people’s experience of art, books, sculpture-everything, is virtual. Life is experienced in large part through a highly enhanced virtual reality called “Mesh”. Children’s lessons at school are in mesh, games are in mesh and pets, of course, are virtual as well. It is not only about a world where you can live away from your family but still be present through your highly realistic avatar (think of much more advanced Skype dinners and FaceTime, where a far away family member also “sits” at the table), but also about a world where material objects and the pleasures of touching, feeling and seeing in the real world is becoming rarer and rarer. This doesn’t sound unfamiliar at all: we already seem to have access to everything we can imagine on the Internet, but we can still experience real art in the real world if we choose to.

The story touches on the theme of identities as well, both our virtual identities and our real identities, because as we know, they can be quite distinct. A new discovery, or a new scientific creation called Sibil is at the heart of the story. She is not a robot, although she is the definition of artificial intelligence. She is a complex, extremely advanced algorithm. She organizes and classifies information in a way that allows people to experience works of art in a highly interactive way. Through Sibil, a work of art is enriched by all the traces of information that could possible be attached to it and this shapes each viewer’s experience. I already feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of information we are exposed to every day, I think most of us are, so I can’t imagine how we will manage in 2060. I guess that’s the brilliance of Sibil’s discovery. In the end, Ward finds a way to link all the images and the stories together through Sibil.

Every once in a while, when I was reading the book, I would turn to the end and look at Katie Ward’s picture and bio: she was born in 1979 and this is her first novel. It’s an admirable accomplishment. Her book is beautiful, touching and erudite. I really enjoyed it.

Bel-Ami, by Guy de Maupassant

Bel ami, de Guy de Maupassant,  Édition de Jean-Louis Bory, Gallimard, Folio classique.
Bel ami, de Guy de Maupassant, Édition de Jean-Louis Bory, Gallimard, Folio classique.

I am prone to obsessions, most of them too debilitating to confess at any time. Georges Duroy, the title character of Bel ami by Guy de Maupassant, is obsessed as well. He is a young ex-soldier in 1880’s Paris obsessed with changing his life for the better. He is very poor. On a summer night, wandering the streets around the Parisian cafés, Duroy tries to decide between spending his last 3 francs 40 sous on a drink or spend the last three days of the  month hungry while waiting for his next pay. He watches people, men and women happily drinking at the cafés; they have no apparent worries nor they seem to have to make any mental calculations to see if they can afford their next drink. By chance, he meets an old army friend. Life has turned out very differently for him: Forestier writes for La Vie française newspaper, is married and, as Duroy  notices, is respectably dressed and with the look of somebody who eats and has eaten well for a while.Thus starts Duroy’s climb into Paris society.

As often happens in 19th century novels, Duroy easily finds a job at the newspaper through his connection with Forestier and from there on he seduces woman after woman to achieve the place he really think he deserves in Paris: the top. It doesn’t happen as easily as I make it sound: he is tested by his journalist colleagues who accuse him of not writing his own articles (which is true at the beginning) but slowly he is able to learn the trade and stand on his own. Duroy’s ambition and obsession with power are what guide the story. He has been so poor for so long, is so ashamed of his humble country origins, is so acutely aware of his lack of talent that he is desperate to become somebody else, a completely new creation far away from what he really is.

Unlike me, who am debilitated by my obsessions, Duroy is not debilitated by his. Quite the opposite, he gets bolder and bolder as the book goes along: at one point he seduces his newspaper boss’s wife and he doesn’t even stop there. The most surprising thing about this novel is that, even though Maupassant wrote this book in 1885, it feels fresh and modern in many ways. One reason is his writing style, which is highly naturalistic. Details about prices, daily routines, work at a French newspaper, restaurant meals or women’s dresses bring 1885 Paris to life in a way I had not experienced before.

But there is, I think, another reason why it feels so modern as well. Duroy reminds me of our current obsession with easy fame and celebrity: he wants to be powerful, admired, desired, and most importantly, respected. He doesn’t know how he will get there or what means he will use, he only knows he will do it and that he deserves it. My younger brother has admirable ambition, the kind I never had: big, slightly calculating and smart. He looks up to and studies those he wants to emulate. Duroy does the same, he studies those he would like to emulate to try to become like them. The difference is that he doesn’t necessarily admires them and those he wants to emulate are not always irreproachable.

Although this book is so full of life, two of my favorite chapters deal with death. Maupassant captures Duroy’s feelings so acutely throughout the book that when he confronts the possibility of his own death and his fear and repulsion at somebody else’s death it feels very, very real.  At the end of the novel,  Duroy has definitely made it, though we have the feeling he won’t stop there, that he will continue to climb higher and higher into Parisian society and lower and lower into the depths of his own ambition.

Bel ami is definitively a classic you won’t regret reading. And there are many movie and TV versions that have been made of it, the most recent with Robert Pattinson as Duroy. Now, if that doesn’t make you read it…