This appeared in the Patch:
When I was in college, I took a course taught by an erudite British poet and critic, Jon Stallworthy, who came to class in nubby wool sweaters, and assigned us to write an essay on “Why Mrs. Dalloway is a masterpiece.”
Moxie sophomore that I was, I decided to write a paper on why Mrs. Dalloway was not a masterpiece, and headed straight to the Graduate Library, where I spent hours digging up old reviews in English newspapers, panning Woolf’s novel, and building up my sure-fire case that the novel was ‘second rate’—not on the order of To the Lighthouse, certainly. I was sure my professor would be impressed by my extraordinary, rebellious performance.
Not surprisingly, Professor Stallworthy was not amused. Not only had I missed the beauty and genius of the novel, but he wrote sternly, “I’m not interested in what some critic decades ago said. I want to know what you think.”
In fact, with my little sophomoric exercise, I had missed out on my own honest impressions. Initially I was a little turned off by Mrs. Dalloway: how could I care about this upper class woman, and her desultory search for flowers? Yet once I allowed myself to dive beneath the surface of the ordinary, to understand the deeper trembles of yearning, war, and desperation that coursed beneath, I found myself on a literary journey unlike any I’d taken before. That was the lesson of Woolf’s writing—the profundity that can lie right beneath a woman’s life, in all its quotidian details; the intertwining of the domestic with the philosophical. This is sometimes the subtle ambition that marks many women novelists—especially those mining the daily lives of their female characters.
In the end, Virginia Woolf became one of my favorite, all-time authors. While at that library, I was able to actually touch one of the original Hogarth Press editions she and her husband Leonard produced, with its beautiful, swirling pattern Italian paper cover. And I still own my college paperback, marked and remarked with my urgent, serious notes.
But I also learned something else: to trust my own instincts about what I like and why.
Many years later, at a dinner of women authors, I met first-time novelist Anne Korkeakivi. We chatted a bit about some overlapping interests–Anne lives in Geneva, for her husband is a human rights lawyer for the UN; I had grown up in a UN community among many children of diplomats and international mission employees, and, as an advocate for the International Baccalaureate in our schools, I was curious about her children’s experience at the IB school there.
And then I went home and bought and read her novel, An Unexpected Guest, and liked it a lot. Its structure is clearly a peon to Mrs. Dalloway, for it takes place in one day, as a hostess, Clare, the American wife of a British diplomat, is preparing for an important dinner party when the past comes knocking. In this case—unlike Clarissa’s Peter Walsh, who has returned from his career in the Indian Civil Service, this is the haunted, geo-political past of IRA terrorism. As in Mrs. Dalloway, we track Clare as she manages her menu, her staff, and some mysterious troubles with her teenage son. And like Mrs. Dalloway, this is a deceptively quiet surface book, yet set in present day, post 9/11 Paris, with its high red-alert tensions. Clare’s is a rarified world that might seem arch and retrograde, but as the novel notes:
“Living within the diplomatic world wasn’t just a matter of smiling, shaking hands, and wearing attractive clothing. That’s what most outsiders didn’t realize, and that it was possible to take pride in the skill it required, even when it came to something as trivial as knowing how and when to do the place cards. … With the emergence of instant global communications, some pundits had even begun to question the modern-day relevance of diplomats … If anything, today’s world required on-site national representatives more than ever. She had seen firsthand how difficult relations had become with the French for Edward and his colleagues since Britain had joined the U.S. in invading Iraq.”
An Unexpected Guest is a patient book, impressively skillful for a first novel as Korkeakivi balances the artful arrangement of domestic life with the eruptive energy of past youthful passions, and the tension of present-day political fears. And, to my surprise, about a third of the way through–that slow and careful build suddenly becomes a compelling page-turner that I stayed up late, racing to finish.
For this reason I’ve invited Anne to come read at our independent bookstore, Words, at a reading sponsored by GlobalSOMA on Friday, November 2nd, at 7:30. Please do join us.