I just finished Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy, which I may have read in my dim high school past. I had little recall except a vague idea of liking it, when my book group brought it up. Our group is small and impatient with trendiness. We want a quality read and this time, not overly long. At 85 pages we are reading a book that's fairly forgotten. O Pioneer probably makes it to college reading lists. But My Mortal Enemy asks that eternal question, what happens when you have the joy of getting the lover you want? And at a huge cost?
Lizzie, age 15, meets Myra Henshawe, who's visiting her aunt in their small town in Illinois. From New York, she's a breath of glamour and elegance. Myra at age 45 is short round with the beginning of a double chin, but she dazzles with her style and her contagious laugh. Her voice is "bright and gay and carelessly kind" (except when it's withering and cold and her lip curls but that's later) Lizzie is attracted, as well as repelled by how Myra says what she thinks, regardless of effect. Her very changeableness brings out her adolescent insecurity.
Oswald Henshawe, her husband, is easier. He draws her out. He's comfortable and safe. He's got half moon shaped eyes and is handsome and dressed in a distinguished way. And Lizzie suspects his self-contained quality hints at some hidden greatness--like an explorer.
The story of their romance is legendary. She's the adopted niece of the stubborn passionate banker of the town, rich and ornery. Her uncle was devoted to her. And they were similar enough to enjoy each other's company. Yet, when she fell in love with Oswald, whose father was a Protestant, he drew a line in the sand. If Myra was to marry, he would leave her nothing. The lovers are separated, while he gets a job in New York. Eventually he proposed. And true to great romantic heroines, at night she leaves her Uncles's house and his fortune behind, to marry her beloved.
Aunt Lydia and Lizzie are invited to visit Myra in New York. And soon Lizzie is at her perfectly furnished apartment on Madison Square with her plum velvet drapes. Myra's freinds include artists--the transcendent Polish Opera singer, the handsome young actor, the talented young poetess, dying of consumption and others who see in Myra a kindred spirit. She also sees Oswald's business friends, prosperous people who talk of money. Her life is full of perfect taste, exciting people, emotional satisfactions, yet there is some kind of unspoken compromise or disappointment. And Lizzie and her aunt see her dissatisfaction with her husband as unfounded even cruel.
There's a strange incident where Oswald asks Lydia to give him a "present," jewelled cufflinks he received from a woman friend. Lydia is at first reluctant but then feels he gets so little, since the whims and extravagances that are satisfied are alwyays Myra's, that she goes along with the ruse. But when it's successful, Oswald acts strangely guilty. Later, Myra visits her wrath on her cousin for "perjuring" herself, and the problems in the marriage are apparent but unclear. They seem less his fault but something in her uncompromising nature.
In the second part of the book, Lizzie is a school teacher in a "sprawling overgrown western city," living in a "falling down" hotel-apartment house, where she discoveres the Hanshawe's in reduced circumstances. Oswalrd has a low level clerical job and Myra is an invalid in a wheelchair. They live in different rooms and he serves her any way possible, though of course what he can provide is inadequate for her physical discomfort and spiritual anguish. Lizzie understands Myra's suffering is less about her physical problems, then a spirit, unable to adjust to the defiencies of her life. Light, sound, like the noise of upstairs tenants, continually pain her.
As Myra is unwound by a painful fatal illness, she turns to the Catholicism of her youth, looking for some transcendence. Lizzie gives Myra comfort what comfort she can, including hiring a driver to take her to the coast to see the ocean. Yet wWhen Lizzie mentions to Myra her unfairness toward her husband, Myra no longer contacts her. She rails against Her Mortal Enemy. Near death, Myra disappears and is finally tracked to that same ocean view.
The reason I call this a perfect book is that it's like a sonata or a song. It explores the arc of a person whose nature is "larger than life." And her Mortal Enemy, the one who she comes to resent, is the one who once meant an ultimate height-Love true enough for her to abandon a fortune. Her shortcomings are reflected on him, when what she's dissatisfied with is existence. True to Cather's understanding, her death means Oswald gets to strike out on his own.
While the plot seems predictable, like the opera singer's perfect aria, this novel captures a passion that is outsize to life. Myra's unable to compromise or accept the prosaic nature of days, which make the heights (like true love) a memory. Everyone knows spirits like this, beautiful monsters, who somehow make our reality more poignant for their feeling.
Perhaps why we fetishize pop stars--Morrison, Joplin, who burst beyond what can be supported--and die young. Worth reading My Mortal Enemy to see this study of life's tragic majesty? And yet, I did appreciate Cather's humor. On one level Myra gets what she deserved. And she did have fun.