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An Elegant Woman, by Martha McPhee.

June 1, 2020

An Elegant Woman
An Elegant Woman, by Martha McPhee.  Scribner, 2020.

Forthcoming June 2020

5 stars

A wonderful novel about several generations of women of an American family, their reinventions and the personal narratives they create.

Martha McPhee is the daughter of nature writer, John McPhee, but she grew up in a large unconventional family when her mother remarried.  She is a fine storyteller, and her novel is full of telling details about people and places.  She does well placing her characters in the accurate context of times and places from the early 1900s to the present. Her characters are unique and memorable, even when they play minor roles in the story.   The central narrative never gets lost in the broader weave of stories which she tells. At the same time, her roughly chronological narrative is full of action and surprises that leave readers asking what might happen next.

In An Elegant Woman, Isadora creates a narrative of her grandmother by drawing on the stories her grandmother told her as a child and on documents she had kept.  The story gets complicated because Grammy reinvented herself and was also known as Thelma, Tommy, and Katherine, the last name having been her sister.  The confusion of names and identities is a basic issue in the book.

Tommy had been five when her mother, Gleena, left her husband taking her two daughters, Tommy and Katherine, west to what were then the wilds of Montana.  Intent on establishing herself, Gleena regularly left her daughters to fend for themselves or to be cared for by strangers while their mother taught school, campaigned for women’s suffrage, or flirted with men who could be useful to her. Learning survival skills from her mother, Tommy supported and protected her fragile younger sister, Katherine.  When her sister was not interested in Tommy’s plans, Tommy took Katherine’s name, identity and high school diploma and went to nursing school back east.  Katherine, as she now called herself, became a private nurse to wealthy New Yorkers, married well and created a comfortable life, while her sister settled into life with a loving but working class man. Katherine became “an elegant woman” but one troubled by her inability to control her children or the world around her. The dynamics of her childhood lasted into the adult lives of the daughters and their children.  McPhee conveys the complexity of the relationships of the mothers, grandmothers, and daughters as each invents themselves in different times and places.

In telling the stories of her characters, McPhee raises unanswerable questions, especially about truth and personal narratives.  While she sees the necessity of our creation of narratives by which we live and the need to sometime recreate ourselves, she is not glib.  In addition, she explores the difficulties that our self creations can cause ourselves and others.  Her characters reveal how our stories can be problematic when they stray too far away from the concrete realities of our lives.  We cannot erase our fears of world around us by ignoring the threats it poses.  We cannot force society to yield to our control or force others, especially our children, to live out our narratives rather than their own.

I read An Elegant Woman while quarantined for the COVID virus, fully aware of  the damage that the American president caused by proclaiming lies about the dangers.  He tried to control the reality of the disease with his own narrative of it, only to see thousands dead.  As McPhee writes, sometimes we need history to liberate itself from the lies we tell.

I highly recommend this book, especially to readers sensitive to questions of self-creation, truth, and lies.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 2, 2020 8:16 am

    It is a shame indeed, that some leaders play games and underrate this COVID 19. A fine review, as always. 🙂

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