Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Seduction of Water

Today the Imaginary Friends Book Club are discussing The Seduction of Water, by Carol Goodman.  Ever since I finished reading this book, several weeks ago, I've been trying to get past my first reaction to it, which is that adjunct teaching doesn't really work like it does for the narrator of this novel.  College students in an English class won't all come to an art show on another campus, no matter how much you talk it up.  Male students who show up in odd places to talk to their female teachers are rarely attracted to them.  If you put a big red A on a narrative paper because of "the sheer beauty of the story," despite the fact that the "English is so faltering that it's painful to read," you won't be working as an adjunct for long.  That this is the introduction to the world of the novel makes me have trouble suspending my disbelief, even though I'm usually about as credulous as they come.

On the other hand, the narrator, Iris, doesn't work as an adjunct for long. She goes back to the hotel where she spent her childhood and works as a manager while trying to piece together the mystery of what happened to her mother, a novelist whose legacy to Iris is a story she used to tell about a selkie, a story she used in her novels, and one that is gradually revealed to have parallels to her own life as a wife and mother:
"It was like nothing could really touch her because she could always slip away into a world where she made all the rules and everything had to turn out the way she said. And then when she went away I thought for a long time that that's where she'd gone. Like she never really belonged with us in this world and she'd gone back to where she really belonged."

The teacher background does seem true to life when Iris meets someone who says he'll have to watch how he talks around her and she thinks, as English teachers so often do, "no doubt I was paying for some martinet grammar-queen he'd had in the eighth grade."

There's a mystery about an older man who knew Iris' mother (he turns out to be something of a red herring), and about a necklace with magical powers.  The necklace mystery entangles Iris in a circle of writers and hotel employees her mother knew, until she finds out that hardly anything she thought she knew about her own mother was true, including the woman's name.  Iris does more than walk in her mother's shoes; she wears all of her clothes, one by one, over an entire summer, until she finds out something about what her mother was like as a person, before she became a mother.

That this novel is a story about storytelling is confirmed by the author's note at the end of my copy, in which she reveals that her own mother had a story, similar to the one Iris' mother tells her, and she told it over and over, "making sense of her life by telling it to me."

That's one of the benefits of motherhood; you can tell your children stories about yourself and teach them to believe that's what you're really like. They won't believe it as teenagers, and by the time they get old enough to see the good in you again, you might not be around to tell the whole truth about any foibles you might have left out of the abridged version for small children.  It's not so black and white, is it, teaching children not to "tell stories"?


kittiesx3 said...

Yeah the adjunct experience had me shaking my head too. I would love to have had fellow students in my classes that were half as interesting and engaged as the ones Iris had :-)

FreshHell said...

I was with it, despite some misgivings, until everything (literally) blew up in the end and then I just had to throw up my hands and say "Really? Was all this gothic nonsense necessary?"

Libby said...

i'm kind of with Claudia. I really liked the storytelling aspect of it, the use of the story weaving in and out and through everything else, but the whole Gothic murder plot just lost me entirely.

Marie said...

if you can't suspend disbelief- if the premise isn't credible- the book wouldn't do much for me, either!

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, exactly. It's like a wish-fulfillment class!

FreshHell, it was a lot of superstructure on a relatively simple plot.

Libby, I think the mystery had to stay a bit contrived to work, whereas the story part was what made most of us keep reading.

Marie, I promise you that I'm one of the best suspenders of disbelief you'll ever meet. Even in my twenties, I was gullible enough to actually get my mother a glass of water when she asked (her ploy for talking about something she didn't want me to hear, as a child).