I’ve just finished reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and have mixed feelings about the era and the characters. It’s difficult to read about Victorian morés from a 21st Century perspective. Not only do I need lenses that will give me a bi-cultural perspective, but I also feel squashed between a culture clash. Just after I finished with Portrait, I read a review of A. M. Homes’ latest book May We Be Forgiven in The New York Review of Books. One of her main characters says,
There is a world out there, so new, so random and disassociated that it puts us all in danger. We talk online, we “friend” each other when we don’t know who we are really talking to—we fuck strangers. We mistake almost anything for a relationship, a commitment of sorts, and yet, when we are with our families in our communities, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitized version—it is easier, because we can be both our truer selves and our fantasy selves all at once, with each carrying equal weight.
Homes captures the modern dilemma accurately, and while this new world is vastly different from the one James was illuminating, it bears some similarities. The characters James creates have similar problems to those that Homes describes. The people in Isabel Archer’s realm definitely suffer from dissociation. Manners and the proper form for all behavior, while offering a structure that can keep a society intact, also can shut down any meaningful contact, especially in the parlors that James inhabits and dissects. Similarly, Archer’s friends and acquaintances are limited to discussing safe topics. Rarely do they reveal themselves in any depth. For many of them, there is no depth, no inner life, no true self. They flutter on the surface of life, rarely making more than peripheral contact with one another.
Even parents and their children perform this charade. Ralph Touchett, the man responsible for Isabel Archer receiving a large inheritance from his father, and one of the few genuine individuals in the book, seems left untouched by his mother. On his deathbed, she can’t break through the barriers she’s erected, some personal, some societal. She remains aloof from her son emotionally. Though she’s freer in many ways than some of the women in this sphere, she still remains trapped in her persona.
It seems ironic that for all of our concerns about this new age, the 21st Century, and the dislocation many of us experience, it isn’t all that different from James’ world for all of its lack of manners and sense of decorum. We still suffer from the same malady, the difficulty of making meaningful connections.
Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.
My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing. I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all. I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week. We are so fortunate here at the Lake now. The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript. Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.
Here is a synopsis:
Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.
A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.
Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.
In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.
Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.
But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.
Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.