Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf

The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, by Kathryn Davis, is a fascinating novel with a repulsive main character. I didn't like reading it, but am very glad to have read it because the ideas and the way it's written are worth the trouble of getting to know Helle Ten Brix, a Danish woman who thinks her musical genius excuses everything.

The narrator of the novel, Frances, is fascinated by Helle, a musician twice her age who wrote complex operas that are difficult to stage, among them one based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale and titled The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. This opera becomes a metaphor for Helle's life, and that should have been a warning about how repulsive Helle's actions would become before her end, which is where the novel begins. Frances is haunted by Helle, a woman whose love for Frances is spectacular and selfish, like most of the acts of her life, a life which is recounted from Frances' point of view.

Frances has twin daughters by a man whose identify is never revealed. She works as a waitress and hints at former aspirations that have been disappointed, like when she says that "the only practical use I'd found for the manual agility developed during my four unhappy years at Juilliard was shoplifting." She is having a love affair with a married man and trying to piece together the truth about Helle's Norwegian past in order to figure out how to end her last opera, a task Helle has left to her.

I didn't much like reading about Helle or Frances; what kept me reading, at least in short spurts, were the descriptions of Helle's music and the interesting turns of phrase, like "when I said 'real,' what I meant was 'boring'--wasn't it?"

Frances isn't much more sympathetic to me than Helle; I don't find out enough about her to care about her plight. Early on, I find out that she's the kind of person who shoplifts for no particular reason and that she can be cruel:
"Once I even plucked a blue parakeet out of a crowded cage at Woolworth's and carried it, chirping and nipping, its claws digging into the palm of my hand, right past the cashier. Why did I do this? To see if it could be done, I guess. Or maybe just to watch the bird fly into the overcast sky above the dull gray sidewalks and parking meters...."

And yet I kept being interested in Frances because she says things like this, things that almost everyone has felt:
"it never occurred to my mother that as far as a child is concerned, a house and everything in it belongs to the parents. Whereas my parents' myth held that what was theirs was also mine, which was just another way of saying that they owned my soul."
Even better, when Frances talks about her mother, many readers will identify with her (perhaps operatically magnified) sense of being twisted about by the woman:
"I was...troubled by the fact that my mother's annual letter had been surprisingly short this year...as if there might be some genuine problem at home. None of the expected references to 'your father,' for example. Was he dead? It was like my mother, I thought, to suppress such a piece of information, and then hold it against me that I never went to the funeral."

Mostly Frances is the voice of common sense and a normal, if very sensitive, perception of the world. Once when she hears voices and can't see the speakers, she concludes that it must be teenagers "because their voices hadn't yet been dulled by resignation and its attendant sorrows." Towards the end of the story she gives her opinion on the story about the girl who trod on a loaf by saying "probably it wasn't a good idea to step on something another person had labored over."

I particularly loved the passage in which Frances thinks about a conversation she had with Helle about her married lover, Sam:
"If I wanted to understand Sam--which she assumed I did, for otherwise there was no reason to have sex with him, was there?--then I should remember that his character had been shaped negatively, that he'd set out not to be whatever he'd found most humiliating about his family. That's what we have in common, I replied, and Helle snorted. Only he turned out to be a philosophy professor and you turned out to be a waitress, she said. Think about it, Frances."
In my own idiosyncratic reaction to the novel, I like Helle for being so much on her friend's side while I hate her for assuming that whatever job a person has defines that person.

There are places like that one where I could almost come to like Helle, especially in the parts told as if Frances understands her point of view. Sometimes it's just because the way she thinks is so beautifully articulated, like when "the snow had a delicate crust on it, and with every step she heard a familiar sound, the same sound you hear when you apply the butter too roughly to a piece of toast." And sometimes it's because she understands people so well, even though she judges them quite harshly: "Maren seemed to be an easygoing woman, but it drove her crazy when people were late for supper. That was what happened to you when you decided to believe in comfort; you became despotic."

Especially when Helle is a girl, it's easy to sympathize with her over the death of her mother, Ida: "Death had nothing to do with time--it was a location, a place where Ida had gone. At first Helle patiently waited for her to come back, until she was eventually forced to give up, preparing for the more adult confusions about death we think of as facing reality."

I often like the way Helle's operatic imagination magnifies emotion, as here: "According to Helle, if you made the mistake of returning to the cradle of deceit--by which she meant the house where you'd spent your childhood--you would shrink; go back once too often and you would vanish altogether." Also I particularly like her idea that "Jesus, that aspect of God encased in a human body [is]...partial...to food-loving, overweight women. Whereas it was the Devil, Helle said, who went for the skinny ones."

The descriptions of music are the main pleasure of this novel:
"A single note, Ida explained, was like an act of nature that took you completely by surprise....The finger of a mindless god moved, then came down suddenly. You could call it an accident, for there was no doubt that the single note shot through your heart like a stray bullet from a hunter's gun, although it didn't really have anything to do with pain. Pain had to exist in time: the note had to be struck more than once. And if you did so--struck the same note over and over--what happened was that the note wanted to resolve itself in its own dominant. D,D,D,D,D, Ida played with her little finger....You could hardly restrain your thumb from falling onto the G. The fifth degree, the bass tone, the root of the dominant triad."

What ultimately makes Helle a completely repugnant character is what she does near the end of the novel. HERE IS A SPOILER: she shoots Frances' married lover, out of as pure selfishness as I've ever seen in literature. She ruins the already-shadowed life of the woman she desires because she can't have her entirely. It's big and tragic and operatic and entirely in line with the rest of the novel.

There's a kind of genius in that--Davis creates characters who can inspire extreme emotion. Reading The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf is a lot like going to the opera in that you can't just sit there and watch. You must either get deeply and emotionally involved or watch in absolute disgust and revulsion; there is no middle course if you stay in the theater. I stayed with the book because of the incidental pleasures and then found myself caught, staring at Helle in morbid fascination while the crawling creature she's already caught sings the story of how the web was woven.


kittiesx3 said...

As I read your review, I thought the book sounded repulsive in much the same way The Wasp Factory was. Unsympathetic characters who do awful things and yet I was drawn in.

Not sure I have room in my brain for a second, equally repulsive set of characters though :-)

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I think you capture for me many of the things I find remarkable about this book. I tend to be the kind of person who doesn't stomach books with no sympathetic characters, but I found this compelling despite that. I think it helped that at the time I discovered this book (on display at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, right behind John Grisham, who was chatting up the sales clerk), I had been talking over the idea of setting another Andersen tale, The Snow Queen, as an opera. So it seemed like one of those books that found me instead of the other way around. Davis has some of the best fictional writing about music that I can think of. If I ever get around to teaching a music as metaphor seminar, this book -- or portions of it, at least -- would be on my syllabus.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I should also add that I may have found Frances less distasteful than you. She's weak and damaged and I was willing to cut her some slack in hopes of seeing her take some initiative and responsibility for herself.

FreshHell said...

Seems like this would be worth reading just for the writing alone. I like the passages you quote.

Marie said...

I picked this up at a used bookstore recently just because it looked interesting, and I'm glad to see I was not wrong. I'm looking forward to reading it one of these days. Your review has convinced me to keep it around!

Jenny said...

I can't be doing with books where I hate the main character. I have to spend lots of time with unpleasant people in real life. I do not want to be doing it in my reading too. :p (Plus I hate Hans Christian Andersen.)

Aarti said...

I have not read many books in which I hate the main character. I think the one that stands out vividly in my mind is The Crimson Petal and the White, but I didn't get far in that book. (Apparently it is getting a sequel, though, so I guess there is more for that man to do.) I think that might be the only one...

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, Helle was not quite as repulsive as the character in The Wasp Factory, but she does draw you in the same way.

Harriet, I'm glad I captured some of what you found remarkable, since you recommended this book to me. The parts about music were vivid. I've only been to one opera and seen bits of others in movies, but reading about it always makes me want to go and take my son, who is emotionally volatile like I am.
Also, I think I was mostly disappointed in Frances. I wanted to know her secrets or see her burst her bonds.

FreshHell, the writing is indeed wonderful; I have by no means picked out all the best parts.

Marie, I hope you'll like the experience of discovering the lovely turns of phrase. It wasn't a page turner for me.

Jenny, I can't believe we finally disagree on something! I love Hans Christian Andersen. His fairy tales have always been my favorites because there's always a sadness mingled with the wish that comes true.

Aarti, I didn't truly hate her until she (SPOILER) shot the guy Frances loved. I couldn't believe that, although I should have seen it coming--because the story of the girl who trod on a loaf is about the price she pays for her sins, and they are ugly.

Anonymous said...

My comment is gone! But the only thing I had to say, really, was that I kept reading the title as The Girl Who Trod on a Leaf. Which I like a lot, I think because it's so unremarkable to tread on a leaf. To notice it implies a sort of dainty catlike fastidiousness, don't you think? That is all.

Jeanne said...

ReadersGuide, the title is amusing that way. Eleanor belongs to a group called "When I See a Particularly Crunchy Leaf, I Go Out of My Way to Step on It."