Wednesday 28 December 2011

At Paradise Gate

At Paradise Gate by Jane Smiley was one of the novels that I bought at the charity shop months ago and has been waiting patiently in the pile. I read A Thousand Acres many years ago and loved it but have never read anything else by her until this. This was written ten years earlier and there are interesting similarities, most notably the three sisters in conflict, and it is again a story at least in part about family relationships.

I find that I like books that are set over a very short space of time, they have to be very concentrated in their effect, every conversation tends to be loaded with meaning because the characters are put in what tends to be a quite claustrophobic situation. Ike Robinson is dying, though you get the impression he may have been dying for quite some time as his wife Anna seems to be worn out by the whole process. Their three daughters, Helen, Claire and Susanna all live nearby and do make some contribution to the care of their ailing father, but he seems to prefer the burden to fall on his wife. The story is told mainly from the perspective of Anna, reflecting on her long marriage and the changes that have come about during her lifetime and her view of life in general. It is a portrait of their marriage and the complex interdependence that has built up between them. Ike has obviously not been a nice man but she has a solid loyalty to him because of their shared vulnerabilities. They are fiercely independent and resist acknowledging how much they rely on their daughters.

"Ike had never touched her like that, had almost ignored the details of her appearance, but had never let her ignore a single detail of his. She had admired him, washed for him, bought for him, made for him, inspected the bald spot he couldn't see, judged the growth of his belly, the atrophy of his muscles, and the tone of his skin until she felt that his body was her primary activity. Not to mention feeding it." (p.132)

Here she is making the bed, it is a nice mix of domesticity, intimacy and the image of her being both practical and very practiced. I particularly like the idea of a benign promise:

"Ike nodded. She set him gently in his chair and turned to the bed, which was quite disarranged. It was terrible in a way, as if he had been thrashing about in pain. She smoothed the bottom sheet and tucked it in, then flipped the top sheet with a practiced snap of the wrists, the blankets, one by one. She made hospital corners and tucked everything in, then arranged the mound of pillows. Ike hadn't slept flat in two years, almost. She loved a newly made bed in the middle of the night. It so benignly promised a fresh start." (p.82)

Anna talks to her daughters very much about their own concerns and current life, but what is going on in her mind and in her dreams is her history, her family and childhood, early married life and her own children:

"And the baby would, of course, know someone who would then live until 2067, or perhaps the baby herself would live until then, drawing Social Security, being photographed in her bed, recalling that great-grandmother, whom she remembered very well, thank you, herself remembered people who were born in 1837, less than a lifetime after the Declaration of Independence. Anna shivered, and her life seemed dwarfed by memory.
With the shiver her body began to revive. She grew sensible of her robe and nightgown twisted around her waist, of one of her slippers half off. It seemed that if she thought another thought, then she would think only of dead people, and even to think why that would be frightening was frightening." (p.73)

The group of women, joined by the granddaughter Christine, fuss and fret over Ike as he huff and puffs his way through the day, they dance on his every need, and he takes them totally for granted. It is as if his intense vulnerability has wiped out the domineering and violent man he was. In spite of obvious conflicts between the daughters there is a sense of a strong bond between them as a family. They work together to prepare and eat quite an elaborate meal. It seems to show how important the togetherness is in spite of any history. Christine drops the bombshell that she wants to divorce her recently acquired husband and it stirs up all manner of mixed feelings and attitudes about marriage and the varied relationships that the women have experienced. I enjoyed this book so much because it was about the history of women's lives, just ordinary and everyday and about ageing and how even though things change the essential stuff is kind of the same. Some kind of paradise perhaps.

"Beyond the pleasure of hot bath or a good meal, beyond the pleasure of church with the windows open in May, beyond even the pleasure of a good mystery story late at night, was the pleasure of a lot of work on a nice day: troweling holes for the pepper plants, weeding, drawing mulch over warm soil, snipping off old flower heads, raking up prunings and grass cuttings, hosing down the steps and scrubbing the porch, throwing away old bottles and magazines, kneading some sweet rolls, half to send to Christine, half for the freezer, letting one long intended task drift into another, such as sorting old clothes, that might have been so long intended as to be almost forgotten, then resting with some knitting or crochet, not idling, never idling, going outside and in, letting doors swing, pausing in the sunlight with your hands on your hips, as if there were too much to do, but really only sniffing the air for that first aroma of heat on turf." (p.198)

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