Monday, April 1, 2013

Mythic duality of women explored in THE CHAPERONE, THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, FORGED BY FATE

THE CHAPERONE by Laura Moriarity, THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by Colm Toibin, FORGED BY FATE by Amalia Dillon explore mythic duality in women’s lives.

 At first glance, these three novels would seem to have little in common. THE CHAPERONE tells the story of a fictional Wichita matron, who in 1922 chaperones fifteen year old Louise Brooks in New York City. The Testament of Mary tells the story of Christ from the viewpoint of his mother. Forged by Fate combines Norse, Greek, Hindu and Buddhist mythology in a world, where an estranged Adam and Eve must forever be apart.  Yet in each of these novels the heroines struggle to reconcile their internal understanding with the role in which they find themselves. Yet they are aware of being participants in multi-layered dramas, as the fate of the world,and personal happiness, hinges on their strength to fulfill a unique destiny.

 In THE CHAPERONE, modest pleasant-looking Cora has had the luck of marrying Alan, an uncommonly handsome lawyer. They have grown twin sons and live in a perfect house in the best part of town. Cora cherishes her pleasant respectable life, so it’s a surprise that she jumps at the chance of June in New York, chaperoning Louise Brooks, who's been accepted by a prestigious dance school. When Cora meets Louise, she is put off less by the moody teenager than her mother’s lack of maternal feeling and proprietary sense of her daughter as her creation—and precocious monster. Louise is talented, beautiful and wild. She’s also incredibly astute. Cora has never known a girl so free. She chides her about talking to strange men, washes off make-up, and is relieved to have days to pursue her own quest.

From age three, until she was sent out on the orphan train, Cora lived at a poor orphanage in New York. She finds the place and requests her records. But Cora’s quest for identity is not just about the homelessness of her childhood but that of her thirty-six year old self.  Despite having her own family, there’s hunger under the surface. Allan, dutiful husband and father, has his own secrets. And though Cora plays her expected role in the marriage, she mourns a love she’s never known. When the nuns refuse her the file, she conspires with the German handyman, and uncovers more than she expected. Then she makes a radical decision.The staid matron is revealed a free thinker. 

Cora fundamentally changes her household, yet keeps the refuge of her respectable marriage. Somehow Louise’s rash enthusiasm for experience unleashes Cora. And through Cora, Louise learns what it means to respect herself as a woman. This story is a  complete surprise. You think you know Cora. But you discover you knew her as little as she knows herself. Self-discovery turns convention upside down. Louise Brooks, the famous flapper, is the twin of the hidden feminist in her bustle.  

The Testament of Mary reminded me of Barrabas by the Swedish master & Noble Prize winner, Par Lagerkivst, who takes the view of the thief freed instead of Christ. Colm Toibin uses a similar device to tell the Christ story through the eyes of Mary. But Toibin’s Mary reaches a frenzied intensity, a climactic pitch of emotion, almost at odds with her phlegmatic character. I found her less individual than a kind of generic mother. 

Mary's not a follower and is uncomfortable with her son’s friends, who she considers misfits, and the idea of his divinity. She thinks turning water to wine may be a parlor trick.. But he did somehow bring Lazarus from the grave, though she asks to what end?  Mary, like many mothers, doesn’t understand her son, knows he’s grown beyond her, but wants to protect him. That’s the main thrust of this book. It begins as it ends with Mary recounting her story, under a kind of house arrest with the men writing Christ’s legacy. They want her testament but are writing their own version. At the end of her life, she won’t compromise her experience, though she wishes her version was more pleasing to them. 

How much Mary tells them of her truth isn’t exactly clear. You do get that she will let history make of his story what the men want. Alone with her thoughts, she takes solace with Artemis, since her regular faith, the Hebrew Temple, is now denied her, a mother of an outlaw. Christ's capture and crucifixion is very moving, artfully packed into 81 pages. And Mary is honest, she even admits wanting to save herself., though she's ashamed at not embracing her son’s martyrdom. Broken by this decision, in the end she’s somehow reconciled by nature. This is a story well-told. Doesn’t matter you’ve heard it before. I just wish she was less an archtype and more a specific woman.
Forged by Fate, not unlike Percy and The Lightning Thief, has Gods that exist simultaneously with Earth. But Eve’s quest is less adventure than romance. In multiple story lines: she’s the newly made Eve in Eden pursued by a brutal dictatorial Adam; the reincarnated Eve in modern France before her wedding, when Adam insinuates himself into her protected circle; and stone age Eve, living with the disguised god Thor in a fishing village. There are intriguing flashes of her lives as Helen to Adam’s Paris, and a painful time in a modern mental ward.  

But Eve's past is present in the fact that if Adam beds her, it means the end of the world. Fortunately, Eve's fiancee is a reincarnation of previous protectors. She relies on him, though she's attracted to Adam's "heat" and must, ultimately, save herself.. All of this cosmic activity is a tad overly complicated but great fun. You want to find out what happens in the second volume. Will she be able to utilize her full power in this current incarnation or give into the insanity she fears?  Will Eve resist Adam one more lifetime?  And while noble Thor guards her, can he remain anonymous?  This is high genre.