When I finish a book, I close it and reflect. Where did we go? How did we get here? What was that? I develop a mental image of me and this book that reflects the reading experience, a silhouette of us, the sort of stenciled drawing you’d find on Etsy. A picture of what happened while we were together, alone, me and that book.
Philip Roth’s Patrimony. I was hunched over the pages, photographing paragraphs, crying jagged tears that were in me, hiding. Shaking, laughing, I could taste his mom’s last soup. I couldn’t lift my head to the world.
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. I was in bed, under the covers, fetal, afraid to look up at the old metal tiles on the ceiling of my New York home, now aware of the person who lived here before me, all the dead, all of them somewhere, watching, wanting, hovering.
And now for the main event: Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett.
What a book. What a debut novel. I’m drawn to books that bend genre and prove difficult to summarize, and Winner is that. This is a story of sisters. There’s promiscuous Abigail Mather—she has sex—and her twin sister, librarian Dorcas Mather—she has books. Dorcas is reading Abigail’s revealing book, cringing, seething, telling us what really happened. This is that rare feat: riotous, unpretentious fiction about the art of writing. It’s also about fighting over men and the peculiarities of New Englanders.
This is us, me and that book:
I am on a winter beach in coastal New England. Other people are there, walking their dogs, minding their business. I’m reading, marking every page, running up to strangers, grabbing at their lapels. I am shouting.
Look at this, look what she said now! Jesus Christ, you have to read this! It begins in a grocery store. I love grocery stores. She gets it. She knows! She knows how we are, how we love to worry, how we gear up when faced with forthcoming natural disasters, how we are the natural disasters. She gets it. Us. New England. How we carry our ghosts so proudly, so stunted, how we can never be complete because we missed that storm that would have shown us what pain and suffering and disaster were really all about. That deeply human lust to confront disaster, to batten down the hatches, to duke it out, not that we can ever live up to the fights we missed. Oh, New England!
Don’t go! There’s more! She gets it. All of it. She has this M. C. Escher–esque structural gift, these warring narratives, this roaring laugh, this searing view on sex, bodies, skin. And the humor! That’s what this book is, a big, fat, laugh-out-loud exercise in open wounds and close reading.
Wait! There’s more!
There’s feminism, sisterhood and loyalty. Her women are so empowered. My God, this is writing. Jincy Willett created something in this book that could only have come from Jincy Willett, that’s how unique it is. These are her lovely bones, on every page. Read this book, learn a new language. And did I tell you that it begins with a grocery store? With the hurricane that’s coming, that could never be enough?
Okay, you can go. Sorry about your lapels.
Yes, when it comes to Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award, I will always be marking the pages, grabbing at lapels.