Wednesday, April 2, 2008


When I was in college, I saw the play Rashomon, which tells the same story from four different perspectives. Recently I saw the movies Vantage Point and Atonement, and they show the same events from different characters' perspectives. This has been much more common in the novel, as it's less jarring. One of the first novels I read that did this almost as well as Faulkner does it in The Sound and the Fury is Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. It not only tells the same events from different perspectives, but it moves the characters through time and adds events while letting each character (members of a family) have his or her say. The mother gets her turn first, both because she tells about events before the children were born and because otherwise you might see her as the children do. (One of the things this novel conveys is how little we can know of our parents as people.)

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant has one of the best beginnings I've ever read:

You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say, the way we started extra children after the first child fell so ill. Cody, that was, the older boy. Not Ezra here beside her bed but Cody the trouble-maker--a difficult baby, born late in her life. They had decided on no more. Then he developed croup. This was in 1931, when croup was something serious. She'd been frantic. Over his crib she had draped a flannel sheet, and she set out skillets, saucepans, buckets full of water that she'd heated on the stove. She lifted the flannel sheet to catch the steam. The baby's breathing was choked and rough, like something pulled through tightly packed gravel. His skin was blazing and his hair was plastered stiffly to his temples. Toward morning, he slept. Pearl's head sagged in the rocking chair and she slept too, fingers still gripping the ivory metal crib rail. Beck was away on business--came home when the worst was over, Cody toddling around again with nothing more than a runny nose and a loose, unalarming cough that Beck didn't even notice. "I want more children," Pearl told him. He acted surprised, though pleased. He reminded her that she hadn't felt she could face another delivery. But "I want some extra," she said, for it had struck her during the croup: if Cody died, what would she have left?
...."I don't know why I thought just one little boy would suffice," said Pearl.
But it wasn't as simple as she had supposed. The second child was Ezra, so sweet and clumsy it could break your heart. She was more endangered than ever. It would have been best to stop at Cody. She still hadn't learned, though. After Ezra came Jenny, the girl--such fun to dress, to fix her hair in different styles. Girls were a kind of luxury, Pearl felt. But she couldn't give Jenny up, either. What she had now was not one loss to fear but three. Still, she thought, it had seemed a good idea once upon a time: spare children, like spare tires, or those extra lisle stockings they used to package free with each pair.

As a mother, I sometimes worry that my love for my children will be overtaken by the intensity of my fears for them. But I've internalized so many of the lines from this book that when I tune up to that pitch, I remind myself to be more like Pearl's daughter, who is "learning to make it through life on a slant. She was trying to lose her intensity." It's a part of my continuing effort to not turn out exactly like my own mother, a person generally acknowledged to be (as I am, as my daughter is) a formidable person.

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