The Bradshaw Variations

I’ve been reading books by Rachel Cusk this summer. I’ve read four of them now, and The Bradshaw Variations (2009) has been the one I can actually say I liked. I enjoyed the other ones (Transit, Outline, and In the Country) and found them interesting, but I really like The Bradshaw Variations. So many characters to get to know! It’s about an extended family, and this family has its dysfunctionalities like all families do (if we’re honest about them). As I read this book, I found myself recognizing certain aspects of human nature… the things you don’t put into words or even thoughts until you see it spelled out in front of you. I love it when that happens!

It was hard for me to choose a quote because all the paragraphs seem so intertwined and connected to all the others, but here’s an example so you can get a taste of her writing style:

Often, on Sundays, Thomas and Tonie find themselves on their way to Laurier Drive, for in spite of the topiary and the Union Jacks drooping on their polished flagpoles, Howard and Claudia’s domain has the magnetism of cultural centrality. Usually, in the car, Tonie complains: she would like their own house to draw and pull the world to itself, or so she thinks. But she is often uneasy and out of sorts when they have visitors. It is this, Thomas supposes, that she is complaining about. She would like to be different, while not understanding precisely what the difference is.

I’m not the only one who wants but doesn’t want visitors in my house! And I also am vaguely aware of complaining about real things outside of myself, when really I know the problem is my own uncomfortable way of dealing with that thing. For example, because my husband is almost always working, people don’t invite us over for dinner. I never really figured out why it’s improper to invite the kids and I without my husband, but apparently it is. Even at potlucks, I sometimes get the suspicion that people wonder how I have the nerve to come without my husband. But anyway, I can feel mildly offended by this, and at the same time relieved. Because it means I don’t have to go to other people’s houses for dinner and try to uphold small talk around the table while attempting to eat the weird food that other people serve.

Thank you, Rachel Cusk, for giving me these moments of self-clarification.

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Anne Tyler

A couple months ago I tried out my library’s Personalized Book Pick service. I had to answer some questions about books I like and don’t like, and the librarian responded with a list of books I might enjoy. Among them were Anne Tyler’s books. I’ve read several now (she has written quite a few) and I understand why they were chosen for me. The characters are so thoughtful, the families so natural and problematic, the plots based mostly on inner conflict. There are usually marriages involved, which means love complicated. I still have plenty of her books to read yet, but so far my favorite is Back When We Were Grownups.

Now, I’m not saying everything about Anne Tyler’s books is just right. In fact, I tend not to like her endings. But somehow the ending doesn’t matter so much. It’s everything else — the living that goes on — that draws me to her stories. An ending is like the death of the book. Sometimes it dies gracefully and other times not.

And Anne Tyler is not a Christian, at least during the time she wrote the books I read. Most of her characters avoid religion altogether; they are uncomfortable around it. In Noah’s Compass, the title actually comes from a conversation the grandfather had with the four-year-old son of his born-again daughter. It wasn’t a very comfortable conversation, and I am sorry to say it didn’t turn the grandfather in the right spiritual direction. I wished it had. I wish Anne Tyler did have more faith in God. As it is, her characters have feelings of hope, but they often seem to be struggling with what they are hopeful in.

Yet, I can’t just read books written by Christians. I wouldn’t be much of a reader then. God has blessed certain people with insight and the ability to share their insight, and from these people I can learn, even if their worldview isn’t centered on Christ. I suppose I get a little defensive about my choice of literature sometimes. I did grow up in a house where the bookshelves were lined with Christian romance novels. And I went through a phase of reading those. But I’ve been through a lot of other phases, too. This summer is the Anne Tyler phase, and I look forward to it:)