'I See You Everywhere' by Julia Glass
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I like Julia Glass' characters because they stay with me long after I've finished her books. They seem like friends of friends, people I've heard a lot about but haven't yet met face to face.
Her characters are unique, and she's a pro at weaving together unlikely traits within complex social networks in rich settings. Just like real life.
By Julia Glass
Glass is best known for her 2002 National Book Award winner, "Three Junes." Her second novel, "The Whole World Over," was released in 2006.
In her latest, two sisters, Clem and Louisa Jardine, take charge of the first-person narration, trading off sections within chapters. Through this back-and-forth, we glimpse into their private and public personas.
We see the inner workings of their family -- the slights and favoritism (real and perceived) -- their contrasting passions and uncertainties. Their strengths and weaknesses. Their jealousy, envy, failures, secrets, struggles, and longings.
This constant switching of point of view gives depth and insight into the fictional world, creates a nice rhythm in her language and ultimately adds to the structure of the book.
At first, though, I had a hard time keeping the sisters straight, switching from one distinct world view to the next and back. I had the hang of it by 1983. The novel spans 1980 to 2005.
There's a consciousness coming from the written page of a reader somewhere reading the novel, a sense of the Victorian as Glass, through her characters, addresses the reader directly. These sisters are telling their stories to us, the reader, the only people privy to all sides of the tale. Sister Clem tells us:
"If you're here to hear Louisa's version of what went on last summer, you will also be hearing mine."
Later Louisa notes, "(Is this tale Victorian or what?)"
Clement is the risk-taker, fun and seemingly carefree with a good sense of humor. She's also the parents' favorite (both she and Louisa would agree on this). She can't seem to stop moving from job to job (studying seals in Alaska, bears in Wyoming), from lover to lover. Her greatest fear, she says, is pointlessness.
Louisa is the cautious, unlikely black sheep, a Harvard grad whose success and high SAT scores seem to go unnoticed. Oldest by four years, she stays instead of leaving, works for a fine art magazine; marries a teacher, leaves him for a stunt man and then marries again, longing for kids.
Their family is a hearty mix of brash Midwestern get-it-done spirit and Mayflower-Pilgrim lineage. Settled in Rhode Island, their mother raises foxhounds, their father runs a boat yard.
These are cocktail hour intellectuals. The father quiet and submissive; their mother a fiery force. The two daughters a gauge of their success and failure.
Throughout, Glass' sentences are a joy to read, for their surprising detail mixed with clarity and grace. Here Louisa describes Clem's scar from an automobile accident:
"I looked at her scar, always uglier than I have remembered it, parched as old dry bone. Whenever I see her bare legs, I try not to look at it, the way you try not to look at a pregnant woman's belly."
Here, Clem describes a doctor who is looking in on her in the hospital:
"Dr. A (which is what the doctors and nurses call him) smells like what I imagine backyards must smell like in Greece, like plants that are green but frugal and thorny, thirst-proof succulents."
Whether its Clem's trailer in the woods of Wyoming or Louisa's loft in New York City, all of the settings come to life with sights and smells and sounds. And there are many as this book travels two decades from Vermont to Rhode Island to Carmel, Calif., to Wyoming to New York.
Although a portrait of two sisters, "I See You Everywhere" is ultimately Clem's story. The novel explores the outer edges of family bonds, and it uncovers -- sometimes softly and sweetly other times with bold, brash forthrightness -- what can't be saved and what can.
If the novel is strangely Victorian, then perhaps Glass is the Edith Wharton for the 21st century. I hope so because she is a great writer. Wharton wrote more than 48 books in her lifetime. American literature could use a few more from Glass.
First Published November 16, 2008 12:00 am