Arts & Culture

Sister Act

Book review.

Sue Halpern '77 is the author of two books of fiction and three of nonfiction, most recently Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From the Front Lines of Memory Research.

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Julia Glass '78
Pantheon Books, $24.95

Before she was a writer, Julia Glass was a painter, and it was with an artist's sensibility that she composed her first novel, Three Junes. Written in three parts, each a June from a different year, Glass took the time-is-a-river trope and turned it on end so that the river didn't flow so much as it got dammed. Events snagged and collected, people did too, and feelings rushed to the edge and tumbled over. Glass called Three Junes a triptych, to distinguish it from a trilogy: though the three stories could stand on their own, they needed each other to be whole. The novel won the National Book Award for 2002.

In I See You Everywhere, her lovely, affecting third book, Glass plays again with time and structure, taking her cues from music, not art. It is an antiphonal novel, a call and response between two women, Louisa and Clement Jardine, over a quarter century, from 1980 to 2005. The two are sisters, born four years apart. Louisa, who is older, is the more conventional, predictable one. After a brief stint as a potter, she ends up in New York, writing for an influential art magazine. She's the good girl, the one who did her homework, went to Harvard, married a steady, uncomplicated guy and fell into a steady, uncomplicated life -- at least for a while. Her sister Clement, whom she calls Clem, is the live wire. She crackles with personality and with passions -- for men and animals, especially. Clem is a freelance wildlife biologist, a traveler to exotic places, a deeply attractive woman who is committed to not being committed.

In 1980, when the book opens, Louisa is 25 and uncertain about the world and her place in it. It's her voice we hear first -- petulant and whiny and self-reflective to the point of narcissism. "Sometimes when I'm at the wheel," Louisa observes, "mesmerized yet alert to its rapid spin, hands shiny with cocoa-colored mud, I wonder. Am I talented? Am I a fraud? Am I grandiose?" She's chronically jealous of her sister despite her own, obvious gifts, and unaware that their sibling rivalry has played itself out. Clem, who is 21 and in college, is already moving along the path of her vocation. She takes up the story next, not where Louisa has left off, as if being handed her sister's narrative baton, but by carrying one of her own. Back and forth they go, from 1980 to 1983 to 1989 and beyond, inhabiting the same time but rarely the same space.

In the hands of a less skilled writer -- one who would never think, for example, to describe the "sallow," formerly white paint of an old house as hanging "off the clapboards in broad curling tongues" -- this antiphony could easily lapse into a predictable chick-litty dialectic. But Glass has grown up with her characters. She knows how the music changes and the styles evolve. More crucially, she understands how age affects the emotional timbre and pitch of a person's life, and how the self, buffeted by circumstance, discovers who it is. "I have always shuddered at the use of that word, survivor, for endurance beyond anything short of shipwreck or tsunami, something that puts you in violent physical peril. It feels melodramatic to think of myself as a survivor, though that's what the politics of cancer would have me proclaim myself to be," Glass writes in the voice of Louisa. "I was sick -- invisibly, impalpably sick -- and now I'm better; at least until the next thing, or the last thing, comes along." This is not a philosophical exploration, and not a quest. It is, rather, the most common thing and the least noticed -- the erosion of topsoil to bare rock.

If Glass had written a more conventional, time-lapsed story, rather than one made of discrete snapshots, she might not have been able to so precisely capture this. Still, there can be something jarring about a narrative that jumps the chronological banks -- from 1990, for example, when Clem has just broken her arm (she's always getting hurt), to 1993, when Louisa has cancer and has left her unassuming, predictable husband to live with a Hollywood stuntman -- with no bridge, emotional or descriptive, between them. Each chapter can stand alone as a short story, and indeed that is how much of this book was originally published. Even so, there's no question that I See You Everywhere is a novel, not a collection of stories; not only is its whole far greater than the sum of its parts, but it is only when those parts are combined that they reveal that the novel's real protagonist is not Louisa or Clem, but the relationship of one to the other, sister to sister.

If there is a lesson inherent in the gaps Glass does not bridge, it's that narrating your own life does not make you privy to the way it will turn out. Louisa is unhappy with her husband, and then, the next time we see her, they are no longer together. Clem is living in California with a new age guy named Zip and working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and then she's in Wyoming hanging out with a married man and his tracking dogs. Whatever is in the ellipsis that connects the coast to the mountains is not divulged, and it turns out to matter. This is a story that seems to be made from what appear to be the exceptions in one's life -- the big events, worthy of mention, rather than the everyday; from the acute pain, not the chronic -- but that turns out to be an illusion.

The biggest exception, though maybe it's not exceptional after all, is the one that gives the book its title. It comes near the end, and is told by Louisa, with Clem weighing in here and there. It's surprising, shocking, even, and it would be wrong to reveal it. Better, instead, to leave the last word to Louisa, whose voice has mellowed over the years: "As we grow older . . . our tragedies diminish in their grandeur. Not to us, not personally, but in what my father would call the cosmic scheme of things. Because tragedy, like a rare dark flower gone to seed, proliferates all about us. Your boss succumbs to lymphoma. One friend has a stillbirth, another loses an eye. Someone's parents plummet off a cliff while driving on vacation in Scotland. . . . You begin to understand that there are no quotas for hard knocks. It's not, alas, like you've used up your allotted share. You're simply growing older and this is how it is."

True enough, but if we're lucky, there will always be the solace of books like this one, companionable and smart.

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