No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

2012/20: Secret Harmonies -- Andrea Barrett

All of them cast as pyjama-clad primitives, setting fires in the woods and bound in a dark web; herself cast as dreamy and dim as Emma Bovary, her lost children trailing her like cats. That was her, humming Italian music while she chased a bubble of romance through the sordid farms. ... as she read she saw why Dory had questioned her so closely. He was an only child, with no children of his own and no sense of a family except what he'd been able to steal from her. He'd taken the fine, everyday web of history that linked her to everyone in her life, and he'd distorted it to make connections so obvious, she'd never thought to put them into words. (225)
Reba grows up in a complex web of family and friendship, in the grinding poverty of small-town America in the 1970s. Family and friends have depths that Reba doesn't acknowledge even to herself, but are clear to the careful reader (and to Dory, who steals her stories and puts them in his poems). Reba is a romantic born in the wrong time, a musically-gifted child who never has the chance to use her talents, a passionate woman who paradoxically craves a detached life of 'clear cool order... her family eating a roast chicken sprinkled with herbs while she played Bach in another room.' (p. 161)

Or perhaps that's simply the best that Reba can hope for, the best of the options open to her. She'll never have the privileged life enjoyed by her married lovers, or the cerebral pleasures of academia, or the freedom to be herself.

This is an almost excessively subtle novel. A lot of events -- pregnancies, marriages, separations, escapes -- are recounted: but what actually happens, the meat of the novel, happens within Reba herself, and pulses out through the strands of that 'fine everday web of history' binding her to the people she loves.

Secret Harmonies is not, for me, the best of Andrea Barrett's novels: it's certainly not the most cheerful or uplifting. Yet there is quiet joy and beauty folded inside the ugliness of the mundane, within the hopes and dreams of the characters.

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