Amongst Women, by John McGahern
What do parents owe their children, and what do children owe their parents? John McGahern’s 1990 novel about Michael Moran and his five children left me pondering those questions. Moran was one of the IRA’s hard men during Ireland’s fight for freedom, masterminding an infamous slaughter of English soldiers, but by the late 1950s time period of the novel his country has disappointed him: “Look at the country now. Run by a crowd of small-minded gangsters out for their own good.” In the intervening years, Moran has prospered as the hard-working owner of a successful farm, but he holds himself and his family aloof from his neighbors in rural central Ireland. The three girls and two boys join him on their knees to say the rosary each night and dutifully kiss him before bedtime, but there is no real warmth between the father and his children. The story opens as the farflung daughters return to the farm in hopes of arresting the decline of the elderly Moran, who has taken to his bed, and then flashes back to their teen years when a locally-born spinster on holiday from her job in Scotland managed to snag their father. The eldest son had by then run away to London after a mysterious fight with his father, never to return, but Moran’s bride was welcomed by the remaining children. The novel recounts the intervening years as the rest of the children grow up and move away, all of them achieving success, while Moran’s isolation and bitterness grow. As a parent, Moran has done his duty by his children — providing food, shelter, and discipline — but not the love that children are owed but so often must do without. As children, the daughters and sons do their duty by their father — providing assistance and support when needed — but not the love that parents yearn for but must earn by their treatment of their children. Amongst Women is a sad story that is very well told.
The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, by Ann Packer
I rarely have to rethink a book I’ve just finished, but my outsized disappointment at the way this one ended forced me to reflect. Packer’s novel covers a year in the life of 23-year-old Carrie Bell of Madison, Wisconsin, and begins on the day her fiance, Mike, recklessly dives into too-shallow water and is left a quadriplegic. Their relationship, which began when they were 14 years old, was noticeably fraying before the accident, but Carrie’s unhappiness grows as the pressure on her to be there for Mike keeps ratcheting up as he finally wakes from a head injury, undergoes surgery, begins to come to terms with his changed life, and embarks on grueling rehabilitation. Carrie feels that pressure from Mike’s family, her mother, her best friend, and Mike’s friends, even though all of them must be silently wondering — as anyone in that situation would — whether Mike’s changed circumstances might change Carrie’s feelings and responsibility to him. As that problem is unfolding, Carrie becomes reacquainted with a boy she went to high school with who now lives in New York and meets and at a dinner party meets another man from New York City who intrigues her. As the pressures on Carrie mount, she withdraws from her job and her friends, finding solace in sewing, a talent that has been a hobby but, from the tasks she undertakes, is clearly one for which she has a special talent.
About four months after Mike’s accident, Carrie packs up her clothes and her sewing machine and, without telling anyone, drives away from Madison and winds up in New York. She looks up her high school friend, who fortuitously has a cheap place for her to stay, and she tracks down Kilroy, the much-older man who intrigued her, and they become lovers. Over the next few months, Carrie’s life unfolds pretty predictably: lots of walking around New York, lots of oohing and aahing over hip New York fashion, lots of dating/job angst with her gay friend and their roommates, and lots of unrequited desire for emotional intimacy with moody Kilroy, who has many secrets, no friends, and an austere lifestyle. Of course Carrie falls in love with him, and as winter turns to spring, he begins planning a trip with her to France. Although she has no pretensions to art, she is captured by the paradoxical view of family offered by one of her roommates: “Miss Wolf is always telling me that the family is the enemy of the artist. Well, I think the family is the artist. Just like the sky is, or all the books you’ve ever read.” But Carrie has no family — her father abandoned her and her mother when she was three — and that’s one of the reasons she latched on to her fiance: she wanted his family. Eventually, Carrie whips out her sewing machine, which causes one of her roommates to drag her down to Parsons fashion school, where she signs up for courses and really impresses her professors. And that’s when her best friend calls in the midst of a family crisis, asking Carrie to return to Madison to support her. After initially refusing, Carrie’s stung into action by her friend’s bitter words: “I don’t know why I even asked/ Someone who dumps her boyfriend right after he breaks his neck? Forget it, of course you wouldn’t come.”
Except for her continued rejection by the bitter best friend, Carrie’s return to Madison goes far more smoothly than I expected. There’s plenty of coolness but little outright hostility, and she finds her way back to friendship with everyone in the end. Although she expects to be disappointed at the fabrics at the Madison shop she frequented before moving to the more glamorous offerings in New York fabric shops, Carrie finds that is not the case. In addition, although she misses her classes at Parsons, she actually lines up a paying design job in Madison. And however much she misses Kilroy, she can’t seem to actually get on a plane because she’s really interested in finding out how Mike’s going to turn out. When Kilroy ships her the sewing machine she left in his apartment, that seals the deal: She’s staying in Madison.
I found the ending of this novel a huge disappointment, which caused me to wonder first, why did Packer go with such a disappointing ending? The answer seems pretty obvious: She didn’t view it as a disappointment. That left me wondering what I had missed? Upon reflection, the answer to that seemed pretty obvious as well. The Carrie who left Madison knew what she didn’t want, and the Carrie who returned to Madison was primed to finally understand what she did want. She wanted a friend like Mike, who is forced to grow and adapt to his terrible fate, instead a lover like Kilroy, who is stuck in his austere world. She wanted to work with fabric, joining the pieces with her own hands, rather than become a fashion designer who sketches instead of sews. For Packer, the point of Carrie’s surprising choice to stay in Madison is just that: her choice. In the year since Mike’s accident, she’s succeeded in taking command of her own life.