The Phrase That Did It

In the midst of grappling with the final revision of my novel, long in the making and even longer in the rewriting, I turned desperately to an inspiring read.  I asked myself, what character remains with me, after years of reading?  The unforgettable character that sprang to mind was Fenno, from the middle story of Julia Glass’s 2002 National Book Award winner, Three Junes.

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I turned to this section as a way of immersing myself not only in wonderful (understatement) writing, but to revisit this complicated character.  I remember disliking him intensely on my first read, then slowly turning in my affection until, by the end, I loved him.  When I went back to reread, I wondered what I had found so objectionable in Fenno the first time round.  Yes, he was flawed, fallible, tripping himself up, but certainly not hateworthy.  Perhaps it is the fourteen years that have passed since my first reading that make me a more compassionate reader.

When I reached the end, the crowning sentence (spoiler alert--if you haven’t read this novel stop reading my blog and go directly to your indie bookstore to purchase a copy)--I  wept the way you do when you lose someone.  I cried when his friend Mal died, but it was later, in the scene when Fenno is in the attic of his childhood home with his niece, after he has agreed to an unthinkable sacrifice in order bring happiness to his beloved sister-in-law, it is there that Glass slips in the clincher, the sentence that brought me to grief.

In this scene Fenno is thinking about his New York apartment, directly across the street from where Mal lived and died, and where he now watches the new tenant arrive home late.

“If I look out my front windows, stare right across the street, I sometimes see a young woman.  I think she works long hours, as she is rarely there, coming home after dark in conservative, mannish suits.  When she turns on her lights, I see a poster of orchids where Mal put his Chinese carpet.  That carpet through that window, on that night of sleeplessness we shared before we even met, was my first glimpse of a life I might have shared, a love I managed to lose without knowing it was mine.” (Three Junes, p. 264)

I felt overwhelmed by this sentence.  It contained the culmination of Fenno’s self-realization, encompassing our human folly.  How we try so hard to be good, to be aware, to do the right thing, but we cannot see for our own blindness what we are doing or not doing, what we are missing out on. How life is right there in front of us, the blue jay splashing in my birdbath in the golden afternoon light, the wonder in the eyes of the toddlers in my music class, the sweet gesture of my friend who always stands by her door and waves as I drive off, and how I do not see it, how it doesn’t always register, how I can be oblivious.

What I realized is that this why I write fiction: so I can see what it is I don’t always see in myself and my life.

Fiction, in the hands of a skilled and committed author, gives us an opportunity to understand and know a character in a way we can’t know another person. And for anyone who craves understanding, this feels like heaven.

I remember reading a spiritual book, the title now lost to the river of forgetfulness, whose premise was that our wound is our gift.  In other words, whatever it is we think we have suffered, whatever it is we think we haven’t received from life, that is the thing we need to give to the world. So if I feel misunderstood, not seen or fully appreciated, then it is my task to do that for others, to give them what would feel the most luxurious and comforting to me: the gift of being seen, appreciated, recognized.  And by doing this I can heal, or at the least, turn my pain into something useful to the world.

And I’m here to say it actually works.

The fabulous Ann Patchett says that she writes the book she wants to read.  From my corner, it appears I write the stories I need to read.  I can only hope my readers feel the same way.