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Jonathan Raban may seem like a cold writer

Raban: Families look their best when seen from a distance

I want when I ring in the new year to be a better person. - Image by Peter E. Horjus
I want when I ring in the new year to be a better person.

From now until Christmas, days grow shorter, nights longer. We get more rain. I like the long nights. I like the rain. I like walking against the wind, sheltered under a huge umbrella. Office parties and gift shopping and gift exchanges and family gatherings are what I don’t like. They bring the worst that’s in us out. Drinkers sop more drink, overeaters overeat more. My misanthropy enlarges to include me. I become more a hermit.

The clock on the mantelpiece Has nothing to recommend. Nor does the face in the glass Appear nobler than our own. — W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio”

I buy more books. For myself. For friends, for family. I am tempted to enclose a card in these books on which I would paraphrase Sir Edward Dryer’s verse:

“Your mind to you a kingdom is, / Such present joys therein you find, / That they excel all other bliss / That earth affords.” What those four lines say is: Stay home.

But I want when I ring in the new year to be a better person. So I approach the 40-odd days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s as time to revive happier aspects of myself. Reading is part of that venture. I begin by finding a book in which an author I like has collected his book reviews and essays on reading and writers. This book leads me to other books (and gets me out of the house to search stores that sell used books). Other years, I’ve been guided by poet Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures that inspired me to reread Rilke and John Updike’s Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism that introduced me to Edmund Wilson’s journals.

I was attracted to Jonathan Raban’s For Love and Money, A Writing Life by its notice in The New York Times Book Review column “Noted With Pleasure.” (In this column, Times book editors offer quotations from a Whitman’s Sampler of new books.) The Times quoted Raban’s memory of finding the book that changed his life:

Drawn to the book by its title (I’d never heard of its author), I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I hadn’t realized. I’d thought that novels were cleverly contrived escapes from the world and that writing them must be something a bit like fretwork. Portrait of the Artist made the reader live in its language and made him live more arduously, more unhappily, more intelligently in the book than he had ever lived in the world. It made some obscure but fundamental change to the essential grammar of things. I read it with excitement and shock, three times over in quick succession, dazed to fmd myself so deep in a book and so deep in the world.

Raban, an Englishman, is most familiar in the United States as author of Old Glory, an account of his journey down the Mississippi River. For Love and Money Raban describes as “partly a collection, partly a case-history.” The pieces gathered Raban recalls himself as a boy — “asthmatic ... wire-thin ... no asset as anyone’s friend. So (and this is how the story always goes) the child made friends with books instead.” Books, he notes, admitted me to their world open-handedly, as people, for the most part, did not. The life I lived in books was one of ease and freedom, worldly wisdom, glitter, dash and style. I loved its intimacy, too — the way in which I could expose to books all the private feelings I had to shield from the frosty and contemptuous outside world. In books you could hope beyond hope, be heartbroken, love, pity, admire, even cry, all without shame.

No author ever despised me. They made me welcome in their books, never joked about my asthma and generally behaved as if I was the best company in the world.

It is no surprise, then, that Raban at eight or nine wished to be a writer. Nor is it a surprise that he has gone on to write so well — and feelingly — about what he reads. For Love and Money includes assessments of Byron, Thackeray, Trollope, Twain, Evelyn Waugh and reviews of books by Tom Wolfe, Updike, Robert Lowell (who, when he lived in England, often went trout fishing with Raban).

About Waugh:

His sensibility had the extravagance of a brilliant child’s: adult moderation never got in the way of clarity. What he admired, he worshipped; when he disapproved, he was appalled. The bourgeois virtues of common sense and good manners (the besetting vices of so many modem English novelists) were totally foreign to him — not because he was a snob but because he never forgot what it was like to be a child.

Of the reviews collected in Updike’s Hugging the Shore, Raban writes:

“[Updike] can recollect a whole style in a phrase, as when he points to Iris Murdoch’s ‘sly and glossy spookiness’ or talks of Saul Bellow’s ‘lavish, rippling notations of persons, furniture, habiliments and vistas.’

In his criticism as in his fiction Updike is a three-dimensional realist.”

Psychologists suggest we may find ourselves unhappy during this happiest of seasons by reason of loose family ties. In his essay “Living With Loose Ends,” Raban proposes:

[the] logic of prose narrative in English is inextricably bound to the family.... For to have a narrative to tell at all one needs the continuity of relations, the stake in the future and the Fixed point of moral certitude which the family provides. The novel does not thrive on one-night stands.... Some lives are simply too random, too accidental, too lacking in moral or historical direction, for novels to make much sense of them. And literature, even the most serious literature, is as prejudiced against these lives as the censorious matrons of both sexes who set themselves up as custodians of society’s morals.

Raban admits that it seems “distinctly odd that novelists should be so ready to collude with that view of the family promulgated by domestic moralists....

Writers whose own families have been hell to live in — Dickens, for instance — have been among the most strenuous propagandists for the family in their fiction.... If the idea of the family has been essential to the development of the novel, a great deal of bad faith has gone into sustaining a continued belief in it.”

I should be clear (for Raban is) that he is not asking for demolition of marriage and family, either in the world or as the myth that is the novel’s driving wheel. “We have been taught,” he writes, “to accept the myth not as an heroic ideal, something good, brave, and nearly impossible to fulfill, but as the very fibre of normal life.” The notion of family life, argues Raban (correctly, I think) “haunts all those who are on the margins of society.... [T]hey learn to regard the texture of their own lives as being temporary and freakish.” Raban contends that this acceptance of marriage and family as the norm has implications for literature.

In the novel and in biography and autobiography, “Loose-ended lives conventionally belong to the sub-plot; case histories, there to illustrate what happens to people who drift out of the mainstream and land up in the stagnant creeks where the feckless, the unfamilied, the criminal and the psychopathic foregather.” The “unfamilied” and unmarried, Raban complains, are not granted (as they are off the page in “real” life) “the power of mere ordinariness.”

As example, Raban cites J.R. Ackerley’s memoir My Father and Myself and the novels by Jean Rhys, whose unwed female narrators are reduced to mean minor lives in chilly bed-sitters. About the Ackerley memoir, Raban contends that it is Ackerley himself, conditioned in part by a lifetime of reading the English classics to “a profound conviction of failure and shame,” who places himself beyond the social pale:

His book is burdened by the evident conviction that his experience is so remote from that of the people he assumes will be his readers, that it cannot be properly shared, only exhibited and catalogued. His epic, unrewarding, homosexual odyssey, his eventual domestic peace in the company of his dog [an Alsatian bitch], are light years away from the ‘normal’ life of marriage and the family.... My Father and Myself, like the novels of the unfamilied life that I have mentioned, is controlled, even persecuted, by the knowledge that what it describes is freakish and aberrant.

Raban deduces, again, I think, correctly, that lives presented in books like Rhys’s and Ackerley’s are not in themselves cold and arid and aberrant yet are made by their authors to seem so. He concludes that these books’ authors are victims of social propaganda, men and women who have absorbed all too well the happy family mythology promulgated in literature. Their fictional and autobiographical characters are therefore not able without apology to tell their lives.

Pure chance led me, after Raban’s “Living With Loose Ends,” to Mary Gordon’s fourth novel, The Other Side. Families, as Raban notes, look their best when seen from a distance. The Other Side offers in close-up five generations of the Irish-American MacNamaras. At the family’s center are 88-year-old Vincent and 90-year-old Ellen. Early in this century, Vincent and Ellen left Ireland for the United States — “the other side.” Ellen found work first as a housemaid, then as a seamstress. Vincent’s first job was digging a subway tunnel.

“Though [he] only did this work for two months he’d never forget it and understood from it that men could be made to labor like animals. He saw what it did to them, and yet it didn’t take their lives. Which he had never understood: it would have taken his if he had stayed.”

Vincent went on to better jobs. He and Ellen married, prospered and entered the middle class. Two daughters and a son were born. The son was killed in World War II. The older daughter, a hairdresser, has become an agoraphobe and alcoholic. The younger, a medical secretary, has turned from traditional Catholic practice to the Church’s charismatic branch; she is described as a woman who “speaks to the Holy Ghost” while withholding love from her husband and children.

The novel’s action takes place in the course of a single summer day, on August 14, the Vigil of Feast of the Assumption. (Roman Catholic doctrine has it that the Virgin Mary was bodily taken up into heaven after her death, and a church feast on August 15 celebrates this event.) The MacNamaras — children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren — have gathered in Vincent and Ellen’s house in Queens. Ellen is in an upstairs bedroom there. She has suffered a succession of small strokes, become senile and semicomatose. She raves incoherently.

“Constant words fill the air around her bed. They are terrible words for an old woman ... Curses. Maledictions ... the bars of her hospital bed shake with rage.”

Vincent has spent the summer in a rest home recuperating from a broken hip. It is for his August 14 homecoming that the family has come together. Before the day is over, each MacNamara tells his or her “side” of the family story — again, an echo of the title, “the other side.”

As one after another of these stories adds itself to the mix, the novel’s atmosphere clouds. Tension increases. Yet were one to stand outside the windows of the MacNamaras’ house in Queens, what one would see could have been drawn by Norman Rockwell: The novel’s action admits only those acts whose intent is to keep the family together. Cousins who despise or pity one another are thoroughly polite. The text is comfort offered and comfort accepted; the subtext is — literally — unspeakable:

When Dan leaves the room, Theresa comes up behind Staci. She puts her hand on Staci’s shoulder.

"I’m sure you want to see your great-gran, don’t you Staci. While she’s peaceful and asleep?”

[Staci] hears Theresa come behind her. She can hear her breath. Theresa is nervous; she doesn’t know if what she wants will come about. Theresa wants Ellen to look up, curse, see Staci, make Staci see her. Staci is praying to the sleeping woman: Don’t.

Theresa puts her hand on Staci’s shoulders, the shoulders Staci shrugged to make her furious. Lightly, she squeezes Staci’s shoulders, as if she wanted to encourage Staci to relax. But Staci won’t relax; she knows she doesn’t dare to.

“See how peaceful she is,” Theresa says.

“Why don’t you bend down and kiss her. On the cheek. You’ll remember it all your life.”

Early in the couple’s marriage, Ellen had made Vincent promise that he would see to it that she died in her own bed next to him and not among strangers. Whether this promise will be kept, whether Vincent (who has enjoyed his stay in Maryhurst, a rest home that is part “old folks’ home,” part refuge for battered women) will return home is the question that drives Gordon’s novel. Vincent wants to enjoy what remains of his life. “No one he knew had ever lived like that. It was a thing the young had thought up, not his children or their generation, but the generation after that.”

He thinks: “So much for us was what we had to do. You took the things you were given. You did not cry out.”

At Maryhurst, Vincent plays with the children of the beaten mothers, he tries to teach one of the mothers to read. Maryhurst’s nuns, he discovers, “believe in the future” and hope that in that future, people can change the course of ill-fated lives. “He fears the quietness of the house on Linden Street after this noisy life.”

He doesn’t want to go home, doesn’t want to rejoin his family and re-occupy his role in the family’s conflicts. He imagines them, waiting for him. Their “faces, hurt, justly angry in their accusations bulk and thicken in his mind.”

“Terrible, the way it was in families,” thinks Vincent. He’d never understood it. Why they weren’t what they were meant to be, what they could almost be so easily.

He used to think they could all stop it if they wanted. They could all say, “Now we will love each other. And our unhappiness will end.” As he grew older, he thought he’d been wrong.

Vincent’s dilemma moved me. The MacNamaras’ story has nothing in it uncommon to any family; Vincent’s “side” of that story is no more than that of an elderly man who does not wish to spend what remains of his life alone with a dying wife and her nurses. What is uncommon, of course, is that Vincent’s sojourn at Maryhurst has shown him a possibility he had not known existed. The more I heard his side of the family’s story and felt his pleasure at his new life, the more I hoped Vincent would remain at Maryhurst. Even the nun Otile, Maryhurst’s director, urges Vincent to stay. Otile has suggested to Vincent’s family “that he’d be happier at Maryhurst, but he didn’t want to let the family down. Especially not Ellen.” Otile had told Vincent’s granddaughter Cam, “Let him off the hook.... Let him live his last days in pleasure.”

Deep down, I knew what Vincent knows: he will keep his promise. He will go back.

On The Other Side’s last page the accrued subtextual tension dissolves into a perverse beatific vision. Vincent returns home.

“[Ellen] hears his step in the room and opens up her eyes.”

That is what is seen, what appears to be. What is not seen — more subtext — is the novel’s last line: “He believes that she can see him, but he’s not quite sure.”

During the dark days before Christmas, we need to have at hand a book precisely like Gordon’s, a novel whose plot lines can gather in and keep us, fast within itself, a bastion of a story. The Other Side provides a perfect balance of participation and detachment in which to discover why we don’t want to go home again and why we do.

Jonathan Raban: For Love and Money, A Writing Life, Harper & Row, 1989, $22.50.

Mary Gordon: The Other Side, Viking, 1989, $19.95.

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Tamar Berk doesn’t need your permission

“I see other women do this, too.”
I want when I ring in the new year to be a better person. - Image by Peter E. Horjus
I want when I ring in the new year to be a better person.

From now until Christmas, days grow shorter, nights longer. We get more rain. I like the long nights. I like the rain. I like walking against the wind, sheltered under a huge umbrella. Office parties and gift shopping and gift exchanges and family gatherings are what I don’t like. They bring the worst that’s in us out. Drinkers sop more drink, overeaters overeat more. My misanthropy enlarges to include me. I become more a hermit.

The clock on the mantelpiece Has nothing to recommend. Nor does the face in the glass Appear nobler than our own. — W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio”

I buy more books. For myself. For friends, for family. I am tempted to enclose a card in these books on which I would paraphrase Sir Edward Dryer’s verse:

“Your mind to you a kingdom is, / Such present joys therein you find, / That they excel all other bliss / That earth affords.” What those four lines say is: Stay home.

But I want when I ring in the new year to be a better person. So I approach the 40-odd days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s as time to revive happier aspects of myself. Reading is part of that venture. I begin by finding a book in which an author I like has collected his book reviews and essays on reading and writers. This book leads me to other books (and gets me out of the house to search stores that sell used books). Other years, I’ve been guided by poet Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures that inspired me to reread Rilke and John Updike’s Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism that introduced me to Edmund Wilson’s journals.

I was attracted to Jonathan Raban’s For Love and Money, A Writing Life by its notice in The New York Times Book Review column “Noted With Pleasure.” (In this column, Times book editors offer quotations from a Whitman’s Sampler of new books.) The Times quoted Raban’s memory of finding the book that changed his life:

Drawn to the book by its title (I’d never heard of its author), I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I hadn’t realized. I’d thought that novels were cleverly contrived escapes from the world and that writing them must be something a bit like fretwork. Portrait of the Artist made the reader live in its language and made him live more arduously, more unhappily, more intelligently in the book than he had ever lived in the world. It made some obscure but fundamental change to the essential grammar of things. I read it with excitement and shock, three times over in quick succession, dazed to fmd myself so deep in a book and so deep in the world.

Raban, an Englishman, is most familiar in the United States as author of Old Glory, an account of his journey down the Mississippi River. For Love and Money Raban describes as “partly a collection, partly a case-history.” The pieces gathered Raban recalls himself as a boy — “asthmatic ... wire-thin ... no asset as anyone’s friend. So (and this is how the story always goes) the child made friends with books instead.” Books, he notes, admitted me to their world open-handedly, as people, for the most part, did not. The life I lived in books was one of ease and freedom, worldly wisdom, glitter, dash and style. I loved its intimacy, too — the way in which I could expose to books all the private feelings I had to shield from the frosty and contemptuous outside world. In books you could hope beyond hope, be heartbroken, love, pity, admire, even cry, all without shame.

No author ever despised me. They made me welcome in their books, never joked about my asthma and generally behaved as if I was the best company in the world.

It is no surprise, then, that Raban at eight or nine wished to be a writer. Nor is it a surprise that he has gone on to write so well — and feelingly — about what he reads. For Love and Money includes assessments of Byron, Thackeray, Trollope, Twain, Evelyn Waugh and reviews of books by Tom Wolfe, Updike, Robert Lowell (who, when he lived in England, often went trout fishing with Raban).

About Waugh:

His sensibility had the extravagance of a brilliant child’s: adult moderation never got in the way of clarity. What he admired, he worshipped; when he disapproved, he was appalled. The bourgeois virtues of common sense and good manners (the besetting vices of so many modem English novelists) were totally foreign to him — not because he was a snob but because he never forgot what it was like to be a child.

Of the reviews collected in Updike’s Hugging the Shore, Raban writes:

“[Updike] can recollect a whole style in a phrase, as when he points to Iris Murdoch’s ‘sly and glossy spookiness’ or talks of Saul Bellow’s ‘lavish, rippling notations of persons, furniture, habiliments and vistas.’

In his criticism as in his fiction Updike is a three-dimensional realist.”

Psychologists suggest we may find ourselves unhappy during this happiest of seasons by reason of loose family ties. In his essay “Living With Loose Ends,” Raban proposes:

[the] logic of prose narrative in English is inextricably bound to the family.... For to have a narrative to tell at all one needs the continuity of relations, the stake in the future and the Fixed point of moral certitude which the family provides. The novel does not thrive on one-night stands.... Some lives are simply too random, too accidental, too lacking in moral or historical direction, for novels to make much sense of them. And literature, even the most serious literature, is as prejudiced against these lives as the censorious matrons of both sexes who set themselves up as custodians of society’s morals.

Raban admits that it seems “distinctly odd that novelists should be so ready to collude with that view of the family promulgated by domestic moralists....

Writers whose own families have been hell to live in — Dickens, for instance — have been among the most strenuous propagandists for the family in their fiction.... If the idea of the family has been essential to the development of the novel, a great deal of bad faith has gone into sustaining a continued belief in it.”

I should be clear (for Raban is) that he is not asking for demolition of marriage and family, either in the world or as the myth that is the novel’s driving wheel. “We have been taught,” he writes, “to accept the myth not as an heroic ideal, something good, brave, and nearly impossible to fulfill, but as the very fibre of normal life.” The notion of family life, argues Raban (correctly, I think) “haunts all those who are on the margins of society.... [T]hey learn to regard the texture of their own lives as being temporary and freakish.” Raban contends that this acceptance of marriage and family as the norm has implications for literature.

In the novel and in biography and autobiography, “Loose-ended lives conventionally belong to the sub-plot; case histories, there to illustrate what happens to people who drift out of the mainstream and land up in the stagnant creeks where the feckless, the unfamilied, the criminal and the psychopathic foregather.” The “unfamilied” and unmarried, Raban complains, are not granted (as they are off the page in “real” life) “the power of mere ordinariness.”

As example, Raban cites J.R. Ackerley’s memoir My Father and Myself and the novels by Jean Rhys, whose unwed female narrators are reduced to mean minor lives in chilly bed-sitters. About the Ackerley memoir, Raban contends that it is Ackerley himself, conditioned in part by a lifetime of reading the English classics to “a profound conviction of failure and shame,” who places himself beyond the social pale:

His book is burdened by the evident conviction that his experience is so remote from that of the people he assumes will be his readers, that it cannot be properly shared, only exhibited and catalogued. His epic, unrewarding, homosexual odyssey, his eventual domestic peace in the company of his dog [an Alsatian bitch], are light years away from the ‘normal’ life of marriage and the family.... My Father and Myself, like the novels of the unfamilied life that I have mentioned, is controlled, even persecuted, by the knowledge that what it describes is freakish and aberrant.

Raban deduces, again, I think, correctly, that lives presented in books like Rhys’s and Ackerley’s are not in themselves cold and arid and aberrant yet are made by their authors to seem so. He concludes that these books’ authors are victims of social propaganda, men and women who have absorbed all too well the happy family mythology promulgated in literature. Their fictional and autobiographical characters are therefore not able without apology to tell their lives.

Pure chance led me, after Raban’s “Living With Loose Ends,” to Mary Gordon’s fourth novel, The Other Side. Families, as Raban notes, look their best when seen from a distance. The Other Side offers in close-up five generations of the Irish-American MacNamaras. At the family’s center are 88-year-old Vincent and 90-year-old Ellen. Early in this century, Vincent and Ellen left Ireland for the United States — “the other side.” Ellen found work first as a housemaid, then as a seamstress. Vincent’s first job was digging a subway tunnel.

“Though [he] only did this work for two months he’d never forget it and understood from it that men could be made to labor like animals. He saw what it did to them, and yet it didn’t take their lives. Which he had never understood: it would have taken his if he had stayed.”

Vincent went on to better jobs. He and Ellen married, prospered and entered the middle class. Two daughters and a son were born. The son was killed in World War II. The older daughter, a hairdresser, has become an agoraphobe and alcoholic. The younger, a medical secretary, has turned from traditional Catholic practice to the Church’s charismatic branch; she is described as a woman who “speaks to the Holy Ghost” while withholding love from her husband and children.

The novel’s action takes place in the course of a single summer day, on August 14, the Vigil of Feast of the Assumption. (Roman Catholic doctrine has it that the Virgin Mary was bodily taken up into heaven after her death, and a church feast on August 15 celebrates this event.) The MacNamaras — children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren — have gathered in Vincent and Ellen’s house in Queens. Ellen is in an upstairs bedroom there. She has suffered a succession of small strokes, become senile and semicomatose. She raves incoherently.

“Constant words fill the air around her bed. They are terrible words for an old woman ... Curses. Maledictions ... the bars of her hospital bed shake with rage.”

Vincent has spent the summer in a rest home recuperating from a broken hip. It is for his August 14 homecoming that the family has come together. Before the day is over, each MacNamara tells his or her “side” of the family story — again, an echo of the title, “the other side.”

As one after another of these stories adds itself to the mix, the novel’s atmosphere clouds. Tension increases. Yet were one to stand outside the windows of the MacNamaras’ house in Queens, what one would see could have been drawn by Norman Rockwell: The novel’s action admits only those acts whose intent is to keep the family together. Cousins who despise or pity one another are thoroughly polite. The text is comfort offered and comfort accepted; the subtext is — literally — unspeakable:

When Dan leaves the room, Theresa comes up behind Staci. She puts her hand on Staci’s shoulder.

"I’m sure you want to see your great-gran, don’t you Staci. While she’s peaceful and asleep?”

[Staci] hears Theresa come behind her. She can hear her breath. Theresa is nervous; she doesn’t know if what she wants will come about. Theresa wants Ellen to look up, curse, see Staci, make Staci see her. Staci is praying to the sleeping woman: Don’t.

Theresa puts her hand on Staci’s shoulders, the shoulders Staci shrugged to make her furious. Lightly, she squeezes Staci’s shoulders, as if she wanted to encourage Staci to relax. But Staci won’t relax; she knows she doesn’t dare to.

“See how peaceful she is,” Theresa says.

“Why don’t you bend down and kiss her. On the cheek. You’ll remember it all your life.”

Early in the couple’s marriage, Ellen had made Vincent promise that he would see to it that she died in her own bed next to him and not among strangers. Whether this promise will be kept, whether Vincent (who has enjoyed his stay in Maryhurst, a rest home that is part “old folks’ home,” part refuge for battered women) will return home is the question that drives Gordon’s novel. Vincent wants to enjoy what remains of his life. “No one he knew had ever lived like that. It was a thing the young had thought up, not his children or their generation, but the generation after that.”

He thinks: “So much for us was what we had to do. You took the things you were given. You did not cry out.”

At Maryhurst, Vincent plays with the children of the beaten mothers, he tries to teach one of the mothers to read. Maryhurst’s nuns, he discovers, “believe in the future” and hope that in that future, people can change the course of ill-fated lives. “He fears the quietness of the house on Linden Street after this noisy life.”

He doesn’t want to go home, doesn’t want to rejoin his family and re-occupy his role in the family’s conflicts. He imagines them, waiting for him. Their “faces, hurt, justly angry in their accusations bulk and thicken in his mind.”

“Terrible, the way it was in families,” thinks Vincent. He’d never understood it. Why they weren’t what they were meant to be, what they could almost be so easily.

He used to think they could all stop it if they wanted. They could all say, “Now we will love each other. And our unhappiness will end.” As he grew older, he thought he’d been wrong.

Vincent’s dilemma moved me. The MacNamaras’ story has nothing in it uncommon to any family; Vincent’s “side” of that story is no more than that of an elderly man who does not wish to spend what remains of his life alone with a dying wife and her nurses. What is uncommon, of course, is that Vincent’s sojourn at Maryhurst has shown him a possibility he had not known existed. The more I heard his side of the family’s story and felt his pleasure at his new life, the more I hoped Vincent would remain at Maryhurst. Even the nun Otile, Maryhurst’s director, urges Vincent to stay. Otile has suggested to Vincent’s family “that he’d be happier at Maryhurst, but he didn’t want to let the family down. Especially not Ellen.” Otile had told Vincent’s granddaughter Cam, “Let him off the hook.... Let him live his last days in pleasure.”

Deep down, I knew what Vincent knows: he will keep his promise. He will go back.

On The Other Side’s last page the accrued subtextual tension dissolves into a perverse beatific vision. Vincent returns home.

“[Ellen] hears his step in the room and opens up her eyes.”

That is what is seen, what appears to be. What is not seen — more subtext — is the novel’s last line: “He believes that she can see him, but he’s not quite sure.”

During the dark days before Christmas, we need to have at hand a book precisely like Gordon’s, a novel whose plot lines can gather in and keep us, fast within itself, a bastion of a story. The Other Side provides a perfect balance of participation and detachment in which to discover why we don’t want to go home again and why we do.

Jonathan Raban: For Love and Money, A Writing Life, Harper & Row, 1989, $22.50.

Mary Gordon: The Other Side, Viking, 1989, $19.95.

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Episcopal parish potluck, San Pasqual Valley remnants of the 350-acre sweet potato farm

Rhubarb, spinach, Easter Peeps, on a farm in WWII, young 70s couples go gourmet, hippie mom cooking, pie making, ice cream, apricots, white trash food, canning, beets, giblet gravy, bread, asparagus
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Convergence Community Church: community is our middle name

We envision a place where the people of God converge with the purpose of God
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