Women in Trouble: The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
Enid Shomer
Simon and Schuster, August 2012
464 pages

In 1873, newlyweds Henry and Clover Adams hired a dahabiyah to sail down the Nile, past the ancient temples and ruins from Philae to Abu Simbel. As Natalie Dykstra writes in her biography of Clover Adams (reviewed for the Ploughshares blog here),  “Clover made an important transition on the Nile…It was as if she herself had risen to a new dawn.”

Consulting the same Murray guidebook, and on the brink of their own “new dawn,” Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale made a similar trek through Egypt twenty years before the Adams honeymoon. Though records suggest Flaubert and Nightingale might have at most glimpsed one other from separate boats, in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, the gorgeous debut novel by Enid Shomer, a poet and winner of the Iowa Fiction Prize, the two do meet, and a brief but ardent friendship sparks between them—at a time before Flaubert became the father of the modern novel and Nightingale the mother of modern nursing. At a time, as Shomer puts it, when they lived “both of them with the candor and intensity of the condemned… condemned to live as either a misfit or a failure.”

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Blurbese: “quiet”

I’m not usually one to pick on my own, but for illustrative purposes only there’s a line to which I’d like to draw your attention from Anne Gray Fischer’s most recent “Women In Trouble” column:

The stakes are perhaps too low in this quiet novel for it to qualify as a “saga.” 

Ah, yes, the “quiet novel”; the quagmire of literary publishing.Continue Reading

Women in Trouble: The Green Shore

The Green Shore
Natalie Bakopoulos
Simon & Schuster, June 2012
368 pages

In 1970, when feminists in the U.S. declared “the personal is the political,” Greece was three years into a brutal military junta, where public protest was harshly silenced with arrest, torture, or exile to remote island prisons.  Yet despite the fundamental differences between American and Greek dissent during these turbulent years, “the personal is the political” is the defining theme of Natalie Bakopoulos’s debut novel, The Green Shore.

Bakopoulos traces the lives of a middle-class Greek family living under the junta, and though the stakes are perhaps too low in this quiet novel for it to qualify as a “saga,” The Green Shore explores the breadth and intimacy of the bond between the personal and the political. Under the dictatorship, each member of the family—widowed matriarch Eleni; her brother, a compelling dissident-poet; and her three teenaged children—feels a charge when their ordinary lives collide with high political drama.

The intersecting relationships in The Green Shore are sharply drawn, and Bakopoulos thoughtfully describes the messy resentments and hurts of a typical family. Told in turns from the perspective of each of its members, the personal choices the characters face are meticulously considered—whether to flee the country or stay and resist; whether to pursue an affair with a handsome radical or stay with a stable conservative. In one perplexing scene, we can discern Bakopoulos’s own struggle in deciding what will become of her characters: when Sophie, the eldest daughter, discovers she is pregnant, “she quietly went to the clinic…and took care of it. . . .She felt a small amount of numbness and a whole lot of relief.” One page later, though, Sophie is still pregnant, and the book concludes as she goes into labor.

Beyond the family, tourists are everywhere in the Greece of The Green Shore, and the novel is valuable more for what it reveals about the experience of U.S.-born descendants of Greeks—like Bakopoulos herself—than it does about Greeks living in Greece. When the family’s only son, grown and with a child of his own, returns to Greece after a long absence, he brings along his daughter for her first visit to her ancestral country. In the book’s strongest passage, Eleni laments that her granddaughter, born and raised in Detroit, “would have the same one-sided generic view of Greece that anyone, anywhere could conjure.”

The reigning junta, however, is not as well defined as any of the individual characters: though Bakopoulos is wise to sketch the dictatorship obliquely, lurking as it did at the ends of the family’s lives, the rare glimpses we get of it fall flat. In conversation, for example, often our only encounter with the regime, characters will call it “stupid” or “full of fanatical idiots.” These schoolyard taunts are hardly the language of terror, though, and are decidedly below Bakopoulos’s talents. Indeed, while, Bakopoulos delivers a richly personalized portrait of life during the junta, in this aptly titled novel, Greece is observed only from the shore.


Women in Trouble: The Book of Madness and Cures

The Book of Madness and Cures
Regina O’Melveny
Little, Brown and Company, April 2012
336 pages

In Renaissance Venice, Gabriella Mondini is a much sought-after healer of women, apprenticed in the “art of physick” by her father—a doctor who abruptly left his family on a mysterious expedition ten years earlier. When the Council of the Guild of Physicians censors her practice, thirty-year-old Gabriella embarks on a journey through a violent world, haunted by death and disease, to find her father and return him to “the glistening city he once called home.” The Book of Madness and Cures, Regina O’ Melveny’s debut novel, is infused with the sensuous places and metaphorical natural world that recur in her poetry, and the novel’s meditative pace is well-suited to the languorous rate of Renaissance travel.

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Women in Trouble: Clover Adams

Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life
Natalie Dykstra
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2012
336 pages

Clover Adams, best known as the genteel and witty wife of nineteenth century writer Henry Adams, was a hobbyist photographer who killed herself at age forty-two by drinking her chemical developer. However, while Henry kept Clover’s half-full vial of potassium cyanide in his top desk drawer for the rest of his life, she is not mentioned once in his memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. In Natalie Dykstra’s debut biography, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, Clover’s elusive life is finally reclaimed from the shadows of Victorian decorum. Continue Reading

Women in Trouble: The Vanishers

The Vanishers: A Novel
Heidi Julavits
Doubleday, March 2012
304 pages

Shortly after Julia Severn, the heroine of Heidi Julavits’s fourth novel, drops out of the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology—or, “the Workshop,” an insular monoculture of clairvoyant parlor games, Fair Isle sweaters, and home-brewed tea—she is enlisted by a French film-studies academic to psychically hunt down missing performance artist Dominique Varga.Continue Reading