Monday, October 25, 2010


Feeling the urge to read something by Mary Lee Settle, recommended at Pages Turned, I found Choices: A Novel at the library, so decided to start with it. I found it mildly absorbing even though it's largely character-driven and the main character, Melinda, is not someone I identify with much--she's a young turn-of-the-last-century idealist--but the way it's written is quite compelling.

One of the main ideas of the novel is heard early on, in the words of a character who is only briefly introduced: "when you wake up at three o'clock in the mornin a thing is wrong or it's right and you take to drink or do somethin about it one." Melinda always does something about it.

She gets her start as a Red Cross volunteer during a mine strike in Kentucky, where she gives the striking families all the clothing her rich Virginia family will send:
"...she felt as if she were driving through her whole life. There was her coming-out dress, already coal-streaked but whirling around on a fourteen-year-old girl with long wild hair.
An old man sat on the steps of the closed company store in her father's best suit which he had worn to funerals and to church....The man beside him wore the canvas coat from Abercrombie's with the red corduroy collar that her father had always taken to shoot grouse with Uncle Brandon, and the boy beside them wore the pink hunting coat he had been so proud of...."

Next she trains as a mechanic so she can go to Spain with the communists and help out in a hospital while keeping as many of the vehicles running as possible. There she meets her husband Tye, another idealist scarred by the realities of war. He tells a story to illustrate the kind of mistakes the American Communist Party is making in Spain, towards the end of the war:
"Those of you who are disturbing elements will be sent home if your morale does not improve," Browder had yelled into the icy air. Tye told Melinda that the men had all cheered and catcalled, and some of them had shouted, "Get some in, civvy," and others, "Please sir, can I be a disturbing element?"

Maria and Tye get to England where they live with a Spanish war orphan who has attached herself to Melinda, Maria. They come to consider her their own and soothe her nightmares of the war along with each others'. At one point Maria tells Melinda:
"I'm thirteen years old...whatever you haven't taught me, it's already too late." Then she burst into tears and sobbed, "Can't you just be there? Be there and shut up." She flung herself out of the kitchen. It took Melinda several angry minutes to realize that she had been given some excellent advice on how to be the mother of an adolescent.
Any mother of an adolescent will enjoy how genuine that little scene is, especially the "several angry minutes"!

Eventually Tye dies and Melinda moves back to the U.S. where she gets involved in the 60s civil rights movement and adopts a teenage African-American boy who needs her help to get through college.

By the end of the novel, Melinda is living on an island off the coast of Italy, in a villa left to her by a distant relative who admired the way she lived. She grows old there, and her two adopted children come to visit. The novel actually begins with Melinda on the island, remembering her adventures, which I found a bit off-putting until I'd read part of the way through her story and then looked back at the box of "bits" she's kept and realized that no one will ever know the story of these things but her, and many of them are souvenirs of some kind of bravery, photographs of those who have died and will never be remembered.

Except, of course, if you read Melinda's story, which is fiction but no doubt true to the memory of all sorts of things that must have really happened and been forgotten. This is a fiction of witness--not of anything that happened, but of how it must have felt to those who were there.


Amanda said...

Hm. I'm not sure what to say about this one, can't tell if it would appeal to me or not...

Jeanne said...

I was trying to say that it will probably appeal to anyone who likes good writing. I'm planning on trying another by her.