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Voice-over
The best new novels by young women are reaching beyond ‘sassy’ urban fiction
BY RICCO VILLANUEVA SIASOCO
The she-beat goes on

More bold fiction by women writers

Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, by Felicia Luna Lemus (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A Chicana dyke in Los Angeles leaves home in search of true love.

And Now You Can Go, by Vendela Vida (Knopf). Assaulted at gunpoint on a park bench, an academic re-evaluates her life and the choices she’s made.

The End of Youth, by Rebecca Brown (City Lights). Thirteen linked stories tracing the coming-of-age of a fearful girl seeking love.

— RVS

Blame it on The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing: what began as an innocuous trend in publishing smart, sassy fiction geared to a young, mostly urban audience of female readers has become as stale as leftover coffee. Bored by The Nanny Diaries? Had enough of Anita Shreve? Been wondering where all the original voices have gone?

Now a spate of recent novels by fiction writers in their 20s and 30s — Maile Meloy, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Lisa Dierbeck, among others — has energized this tired fad with stories of immigrant parents and soul-searching offspring, collage-making preteens in search of hippie-dippy mothers, and close-knit families facing crises in Nigeria and India, as well as in sunny California and New York City’s Upper East Side. Forget about Oprah’s picks; these young female writers are the real thing (in fact, Lahiri has already made her mark with the Pulitzer Prize–winning short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies): not just buzz-worthy voices, but voices that boldly cast aside the urban-female mold.

One Pill Makes You Smaller, by Lisa Dierbeck (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 320 pages, $24). Say you’re an 11-year-old girl going through that tender, awkward age of adolescence. You’re gawky, innocent, tongue-tied, both thrilled and terrified by the novelty of everything from boys to bras. Now imagine you’ve also got a body-image problem — not a late-developing body, but exactly the opposite, with long, long legs and a voluptuous chest (Alice, Lisa Dierbeck’s narrator, affectionately refers to hers as THE BREASTS).

One Pill Makes You Smaller brings to life the down-the-rabbit-hole experience of a girl trapped in a woman’s body. For flavor, Dierbeck combines her modern tale with a retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, plunked smack-dab in the Grateful Dead–infused, black-lit, drug-infested Manhattan of the late ’70s. Lucky for us, Dierbeck’s prose is wonderfully assured and her storytelling solid. One of Alice’s most vivid memories, for example, is of her long-gone mother, Rain, who departs after Alice breaks an expensive vase: "Some things were valuable, like chiffon evening gowns and vases made of glass. Those things might be destroyed — ravaged, Rabbit had said — by pretty children. Some things were cheap, like sundresses and third-rate summer camps. If they were lost or damaged, they could be replaced."

These comic and often tragic characters — many, like the horny 16-year-old character named Rabbit, draw their names from Carroll’s famous story — play out their parlor games not on a croquet lawn or at a festive tea party, but in the bewitching Upper East Side brownstone where Alice lives with her sister Esme. One Pill Makes You Smaller marks an important literary debut.

Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy (Scribner, 272 pages, $24). With a title as tantalizing as Liars and Saints, how can you go wrong? Don’t be fooled by the author’s spare, intelligent voice: Meloy is a temptress, as evidenced by the stories in her PEN/Malamud-winning collection Half in Love. In Liars and Saints, Meloy's first novel, her prose is straightforward yet riveting, her men and women simultaneously complex and heartbreakingly vulnerable. Young lovers Abby and Jamie, for example, are depicted in a quiet moment when Abby tells him that their child may be sick:

There was a long silence, which she broke: "Do you think I’m being punished?"

"No!" he said, after a hesitation so brief it was barely detectable. But it was there. He did think she was being punished — he thought they both were.

Meloy’s novel follows four generations of the Santerre family (Abby and Jamie fall somewhere in the middle of the family) as they wend their way through decades of devastating affairs and reckless, joyful times, all the while mindful of the sometimes stifling traditions of their Catholic faith.

Meloy is one of those writers often described as "plainspoken" or possessing "a fully realized gift." Philip Roth (can you get a more impressive advocate?) goes so far as to characterize Meloy as a "no-nonsense young writer who will not permit herself a single exaggeration but who nonetheless packs quite a punch." Lest this praise be taken simply as code for a "writer’s writer" (akin to Richard Yates or, more recently, Lydia Davis and her lyrical, mysterious prose), let’s set the record straight: Meloy is an architect, satisfying both peers and audience with a solid, invisible foundation and an exterior façade that’s pleasing to the eye.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $24). If you’re a book collector, you know that each season sees plenty of novels published by mainstream houses and smaller batches of works released by a number of fine small presses (check out the lists of independent publishers like Graywolf and Soft Skull Press). Add to this mix those odd little books — handsomely crafted and often printed in signed, limited editions by publishers like Roycroft Press in upstate New York. You might think of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work as the equivalent of a handsome Roycroft edition: elegant, handcrafted, seamless in its design and execution.

The Namesake is Lahiri’s follow-up to her wildly admired collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. The novel is told entirely in the present tense; as in J.M. Coetzee’s impossibly solid novel Disgrace, use of the present tense lends the narrative both gravitas and an oddly detached eloquence. The Namesake tells the story of Nikhil Gogol, a first-generation Indian-American boy growing up in suburban Massachusetts. His path to adulthood winds through difficult loves and career choices, all under the burden of his family’s traditional Indian mores and concerns.

Restraint is the operative word in Lahiri’s prose, which evokes her admiration of Nikolai Gogol (her narrator’s namesake) and contemporary short-story masters like William Trevor. But the lucidity of Lahiri’s carefully wrought detail is deceptive: rice balls arranged on a dinner plate are effortlessly, fittingly, compared to "the numbers on a clock face." Lahiri’s keen eye for description without bells and whistles ("On numerous occasions he’s been driven to see the building, a low, long, brick structure with a perfectly flat roof and a flag that flaps at the top of a tall white pole planted on the lawn") is what pushes her fiction beyond the strange genre of "women’s fiction" as amassed on tables at the local bookstore. The Namesake fulfills the promise of Lahiri’s previous work.

The Effect of Living Backwards, by Heidi Julavits (Putnam, 336 pages, $23.95). In this highly original novel, Heidi Julavits (the only writer mentioned here to have previously published a novel — the widely acclaimed The Mineral Palace) combines a natural talent for language with a great story, giving us the tale of two sisters forever changed by an airplane hijacking. Julavits presents these dramatic events in the first chapter, but then widens the scope of the novel to look at the ways these two sisters, Alice and Edith, piece together the truth about this most surreal event, which shaped their adult lives.

Unlike Meloy and Lahiri, Julavits prefers intricate, metaphor-rich language: staring at the linoleum of a bathroom floor, Alice thinks, "From this height, each scuffed square looked like a swatch of desert viewed from an airplane, punctuated with specks of dirt that might be people, goats, a Berber tent." It’s not an accident that Julavits chooses a metaphor suffused with overtones of flight: this crafting helps readers draw subtle connections between the images on the page and the larger emotional preoccupations of our troubled young narrator.

Blurbed by young guns like the ubiquitous Dave Eggers and the hyperrealist-fiction writer George Saunders (check out his comic stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline if you haven’t already), Julavits merits their praise. The Effect of Living Backwards entrances, frightens, and quite literally rivets, from first page to last.

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Algonquin, 320 pages, $23.95). How can you not be jealous of a writer who publishes at the age of 25? Promoted as the next great Edwidge Danticat (read: hot young female writer touted for both literary talent and photographic appeal), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie proves she’s no flash in the pan: her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, is vivid, authoritative, and true to the experiences of a teenage girl in contemporary middle-class Nigeria.

Purple Hibiscus explores the coming of age of 15-year-old Kambili in the city of Egunu, Nigeria. Like Lisa Dierbeck’s Alice, Kambili sees the world through a typical teenage girl’s eye, noting family betrayals and rebellions, the privileges of well-to-do families, and in Kambili’s case, her brother Jaja’s protests against their God-fearing father. When Kambili and Jaja are sent away to their aunt’s house, the young girl finds the impact of both class and war bearing upon her life. To Adichie’s credit, Kambili’s plainspoken narration ("We stopped beside an ube hawker by the roadside, her bluish fruits displayed in pyramids on an enamel tray") adds texture to the novel instead of simply creating an exotic (to many American readers) locale.

At the tender age of 25, Adichie, an O. Henry Prize recipient, has published in Zoetrope and the Iowa Review. She’s among the many young female writers to watch.

The Bride of Catastrophe, by Heidi Jon Schmidt (Picador, 400 pages, $24). It’s not easy making the transition from short stories to a novel (I’ve been eagerly anticipating novels from short-story masters Junot Diaz and Peter Ho Davies). The novel’s the thing — agents want to sell them, editors are looking for them, most readers want to immerse themselves in them. Though everything a novel does or hopes to do — strive for verisimilitude, offer insight into the human condition, and yes, even entertain — can happen in 30 pages or so, everybody still wants to read and publish the Great American Novel.

In The Bride of Catastrophe, Heidi Jon Schmidt competently makes the leap from her award-winning stories (anthologized most recently in The O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories 2002) to the wide canvas of the novel. The Bride of Catastrophe relates the life of Beatrice Wolfe, one of four children affected by the wrong-headed business practices of their father. Combining themes of familial loyalty and sexual awakening, Schmidt explores the ways that life events and chance meetings determine who and how we love.

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco can be reached at mail@riccosiasoco.com


Issue Date: September 19 - 25, 2003
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